14, 2006: Good news! I just passed a service station this
morning and I see fuel prices actually dropped a few more cents
per gallon for unleaded gas. But diesel prices still remain high.
This situation prompts several questions in my mind:
Here’s question number one. I know nothing about the refinery
business, so my question to you may seem a bit naïve: If diesel
fuel is a less-refined product than gasoline, why does it cost more?
I especially wonder this given the fact that most of the customers
for diesel use it in a commercial application.
Whether you run a conventional farm or are certified organic, higher
fuel costs will affect your bottom line in more ways than one. As
we look toward next year’s field season, this may have an
impact on how you manage your resources.
So, here’s question number two. Why does the price of nitrogen
fertilizer go up when energy and fuel prices go up? The answer to
this question is easier than the answer to question number one because
it’s based on science—not politics and economics. Nitrogen
is a gas that makes up about 78 percent of the atmosphere we breathe.
The problem is most plants can’t use it in this form, so
we’ve figured out a long time ago how to mix air (containing
nitrogen) with natural gas (an energy source), put it under pressure
of between 300 and 1,000 atmospheres and heat it to about 900°F
and “wa-la” (the way we say voilà around here)—you
have anhydrous ammonia or a nitrogen source that plants can use.
Now, many of you might not use anhydrous ammonia, but most other
forms of nitrogen fertilizer start with anhydrous ammonia as their
base. Urea, for example, is created through a reaction of anhydrous
ammonia and carbon dioxide under additional heat and pressure, so
the cost of production is directly linked to the cost of natural
Now we come to question number three. What can we, as farmers,
do about all of this?
There isn’t much we can do about the cost of energy or fuel,
but we can do a lot to minimize the impact these costs have on our
Here are several things to get you started:
First, start by getting overwintering cover crops into your rotation
to lock up soil nutrients. Even if you aren’t certified organic,
cover crops should be one of the tools you have in your tool box.
Say, for example, you purchased nitrogen fertilizer, or used animal
manure and applied it last spring on your fields. Some of that nutrient
mix didn’t get taken up by this year’s crop. Unless
you trap it this fall with a green and growing cover crop, it will
leach out of your soil and end up in the ground water where you’ll
never get to reclaim it. So, plant that cover crop and sponge up
the extra nitrogen you’ve already bought.
Next, think about how you can “grow your own” nitrogen
with legume cover crops. You know that 78 percent of the atmosphere
is nitrogen and that legumes have the ability to “fix”
or take nitrogen out of the air and, through a symbiotic relationship
with bacteria in the root zone, turn it into a form other plants
(your crops) can use. So why not use legumes to supply most, if
not all, of your nitrogen needs?
You should see if you can cut input costs by taking a closer look
at your overall fertilizer needs. You may find out that by setting
more realistic yield goals and not over-fertilizing your fields
you can save more than enough dollars to buy the cover-crop seed.
And here’s the last question that really gets us back to
my first comments. Why are we making so many trips across our fields
in the first place, burning up that valuable diesel fuel?
Of course we need to get our crops in the field and get them back
out at harvest time. But do we, as organic (or non-organic) row-crop
farmers, really need to make 8, 9, or even 10 trips across the field
to do our primary tillage and secondary tillage passes, planting,
then the weed management through several cultivations, and then
harvest the crop when we should be looking more closely at organic
If you haven’t read about our organic no-till into cover
crop work, you should. This fascinating system takes advantage of
those cover crops—which already shield us from high energy
costs—by putting them to work managing our weeds and mulching
the soil. Visit our No-Till
Plus Page to read more about it.
As the true cost of energy from oil begins to play a larger roll
in each of our operations, we’ll all need to keep asking ourselves
these and other questions that grow out of a life when fossil fuel
costs were less important, relatively speaking.
I believe more and more farmers—conventional and organic—will
be taking a much closer look at cover crops and no-till opportunities
to manage their energy needs. Many of the farmers who checked out
cover crops to cut costs in the ‘70s and ’80 found they
could save money, but they also realized how much more rewarding,
and promising, it was to farm with nature rather than to use energy
to try to fight it. And they never looked back.
Right now, I’m running out of energy. It’s time to
From One Farm to Another