The Effects of Fertilizer Runoff

Runoff from harmful algal blooms

Fertilizer Use Revolutionized Food Production

Have you ever wondered why so many people are concerned about the use of fertilizer in agriculture and the impact of field runoff on the environment?  Let’s talk about it for a minute.

The use of fertilizer in agricultural practices revolutionized food production and helped to build modern society as we know it today.  From the big, industrialized farms to the little organic plots, most producers improve the efficiency of their soil by adding sources of Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium (N, P, and K) to their cultivation practices.  These traditions have been in place since the beginning of modern farming and make it possible to feed the world.

A field can only hold as much fertilizer as its soil can capture.  Soil is made up of sand, silt, and clay.  Each of these structures have different sizes and qualities.  They mix together to form the soil’s texture.  This texture informs how a soil behaves: how crop roots develop, how much water the soil can hold, how well the field drains, and how much fertilizer can the soil structure hold.  Soil is only capable of holding a certain amount of nutrients based its structure.  Fertilizer compounds that are not contained and held by the soil structures dissolve into the water of the field and are carried away as fertilizer runoff.  It does not matter if the fertilizer is organic or not.  All added nutrients to soil have the potential to become runoff.

Lost Nutrients Increase Costs

Fertilizer runoff is a concern for both farmers and environmentalists.  Nutrients lost from fields are wasted resources for farmers.  These inefficiencies created unnecessary operational costs and limit the profitability of a farm.  The environmental impact of runoff is a concern for everyone in the community, including the farmer.  When the nutrients in fertilizer flow into local bodies of water, they can have damaging effects on local wildlife and water quality.

The nutrients found in fertilizers are not just good for crop growth.  They encourage natural biological growth as well.  Normally, more growth from fertilizer would be a good thing.  However, natural systems, like rivers and lakes, have a balanced ecosystem that keeps them healthy and clean.  When fertilizer leaves a field and enters these systems, the balance is thrown off.  N, P, and K nutrients are naturally present in these bodies of water in very small amounts. The concentrations found in field runoff are typically much higher than an ecosystem is used to.  Bacteria and algae grow extremely quickly using fertilizer nutrients.  As their population explodes, the quality of the water decreases.  The water becomes too toxic for fish and other aquatic life to live in the system.  Eventually, the water begins to stink, turn green, and become unsafe for humans to use.

Nutrients in Runoff Create Toxic Effects

The scary thing about this effect is that it does not stay in the local river.  All rivers flow to bigger bodies of water, and those nutrients travel with them.  As they flow downstream, more runoff from other fields is added to the river until it reached its end point.  In the United States, this is typically an ocean or one of the Great Lakes.  When all of the nutrients from all of the field runoff reach those big bodies of water, we see the same algae and bacteria growth we saw in the local river on a massive scale.  This growth is what causes large algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico and on the Great Lakes.  The water surrounding these blooms becomes so toxic, so quickly that mass die offs of local fish and plants occur.  The blooms also make the water unsafe for humans to use or even touch in some cases.  This effect is commonly referred to as hypoxia.  It can cause problems at home and even bigger ones downstream.

In case you were curious about why so many people are talking about the problems of agriculture runoff, these are some of the reasons why.

Claire Haselhorst

About Claire:

I have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in agricultural engineering from Purdue University and am currently working on my doctorate. My research focuses on improving the productivity of small scale local producers and new farmers entering agriculture.  I believe that strong and clear communication between educational bodies and agricultural producers can provide the tools and opportunities to build a better tomorrow.


Using Your Local Agricultural Extension Office

large farm fields

Farmers – familiarize yourself with using your local agricultural extension office and the resources it offers

Every farmer should be familiar with using their local extension office, the resources it offers,
and how best to use them. With the officiation of the Morrill Act of 1862 (signed into law by
President Abraham Lincoln, during some of the bloodiest days of the Civil War), land-grant
universities were formed by state governments in cooperation with federal instruction and
funding, as, “institution[s], that shall possess the means of affording scientific and practical
instruction in the various departments of agricultural husbandry.”

What is a Land-Grant School?

Like other universities, land-grant schools, (i.e. The University of Massachusetts
Amherst, University of Connecticut, Cornell University), have two primary goals which justify
their continued existence: Research and Education . But, unlike other universities and colleges,
land-grant schools have a third primary purpose: Extension . This means, not only do they use
their academic resources to illuminate and document new knowledge; and not only do they
accept official recruits into the world of academia in the form of students; but also they have a
third primary purpose and activity, which is, to propagate the fruits of knowledge outside of the
university, making them public for the benefit of everyone. In essence, the Cooperative
Extension System —the system which unifies the land-grant schools across the country—is, “a
non-formal educational program…designed to help people use research-based knowledge to
improve their lives” (Co-Op Research and Extension Services.).

Scientific Agriculture

But as a farmer, this knowledge is aimed at helping you the most. For, as was argued in
the Massachusett State Senate, January 31st, 1850 by Joseph T. Buckingham: “No country can
be populous and prosperous without attention to [agriculture]—and exactly in proportion to the
difficulty of securing ample returns from the simplest and rudest forms of labor seems to grow
the necessity of substituting art , and of enlisting the aid of science to guide the application of
means to attain the desired ends” [emphasis added]. In other words, the institution of land-grant
schools, is the government saying—( theoretically as the voice of the People) — “We want
farmers, and we want them to succeed. Here are the resources; made available to the best of
our ability to everyone on equal terms.” Of course, we always need to be demanding better
Government; we do that best by participation.

How can an Extension Office Help Me?

At the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, there are several programs that can be
utilized by farmers. There is a soil testing lab, a plant diagnostic lab, and several educational
programs—like Pesticide Education Training, Nutrient Best Management Practices—among
other services. Check out this resource for beginning farmers from UMass: Paige Laboratory – Office of Umass Extension

Paige Lab
Paige Laboratory Umass Extension

Getting a Soil Test

If you want to try using one of your extension office’s laboratory resources, consider
ordering a soil test, which will involve gathering twelve samples from a depth of six to eight
inches, randomly, from different spots in the soil you want to test and mixing the collection in a
cup. You can follow online instructions like the ones offered here, when you click Get A Soil

Specify Your Analysis

Sending in your samples, you will be able to choose different levels of analysis. For
example, a basic Standard Fertility Test ($20), “Includes pH, acidity, Modified Morgan
extractable nutrients (P, K, Ca, Mg, Fe, Mn, Zn, Cu, B), lead, and aluminum, cation exchange
capacity, and percent base saturation.” The report will also include, based on information the lab
collects from your samples, “recommendations for nutrient and pH adjustment”. This will allow
you to make precise applications of fertilizers, nutrient amendments, and pH adjustments, not
wasting valuable resources, while creating the optimal soil chemistry. You can also spend an
extra $6 to add Soil Organic Matter or Soluble Salts analyses, or an extra $8 for a Soil Nitrate

Conclusion: Agriculture, Both Art & Science

With all the knowledge and laboratory resources which land-grant schools offer through
their extension programs, knowing and using your local extension office can greatly improve
your utilization of a scientific agriculture. We all enjoy doing work by listening to our gut,
especially in agriculture, when having a ‘special touch’ can mean all the difference. But,
organized, systematic approaches in obtaining the greatest value from nature allows us to not
reinvent the wheel. We can be kind and thoughtful farmers—partnered with the Earth and all of
humanity—while at the same time using technology and knowledge, in the generations long
project of being the most prudent farmers we can be.

About Erik Vegeto


Erik is a student of Plant, Soil and Insect Science at Umass Amherst. He has a passion for restorative agriculture and environmental stewardship that drives him forward into new frontiers of thought. Erik loves to read, play guitar, and be creative. One day he hopes to have his own farm and write for a living.


Buckingham, Jos. T. “Concerning the Establishment of an Agricultural School.” Commonwealth
of Massachusetts, 1850.

Act of July 2, 1862 (Morrill Act), Public Law 37-108, which established land-grant colleges, 07/02/1862; Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789-1996; Record Group 11; General Records of the United States Government; National Archives.

Co-Op Research and Extension Services.

How Can Farmers Deal With the CDC’s Romaine Lettuce Safety Alert?

E coli sample in romaine lettuce

It is happening again. For the second time since April or May, the CDC issued a nationwide safety alert regarding Romaine Lettuce. Once again, the problem associated with that particular type of lettuce relates to the E-coli bacteria. This time, the warning is more alarming because disease specialists haven’t located the source of the infection. It’s more widespread than the previous outbreak, and the alert has expanded to Canada and Hawaii. With the previous alert and subsequent recall, the CDC could ultimately locate the growing region that was the source of the infection. In June of this year, NPR reported that the CDC traced the source of the E-Coli contamination to water – a contaminated canal in the Yuma, Arizona area.

The New York Times called the CDC alert a “stern and sweeping advisory,” and encouraged people who purchased Romaine lettuce to wash and sanitize refrigerator drawers where the leafy green was stored. Many grocery stores,  and vegetable and fruit markets acted quickly to remove Romaine lettuce from the shelves.

The latest alert follows the release of the FDA’s published findings from the investigation into the E-coli 0157:H7 infection outbreak earlier in the year that affected multiple states. The Center for Science in the Public Interest explains that the FDA concluded that the most likely source of the contamination was an irrigation canal that provided water to several farms in the Yuma, Arizona area that grow Romaine lettuce. The canal was located close to a “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation,” a large facility that feeds a herd of over 100,000 cows. During the investigation, researchers observed that their most significant hurdle was a lack of detailed recordkeeping.

Why Now?

On November 26, 2018, the FDA Commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, MD, issued a press release regarding the investigation into the most recent outbreak of E. Coli 0257:H7. He explained that as of his announcement, the current outbreak caused 43 people throughout 12 states to get sick. The last date of a reported onset of the illness was October 31, 2018. Also, 22 people in Canada got ill. He said that the FDA, CDC and other government researchers are working with the Canadian government to learn more about the cause of this outbreak and how to prevent lettuce from becoming tainted in the future.

In the press release, he said that over Thanksgiving, investigators could determine that the lettuce that caused the 43 most recent illnesses related to E. Coli 0257:H7 came from a region in  Central California that grows lettuce during the summer. He and his fellow investigators believe that this outbreak is confined to an end-of-the-season harvest of Romaine lettuce from that area of California.

The Problem Goes Beyond an E.Coli Outbreak

With the previous outbreak, it took government investigators over 18 days to find the growing region and the source of the contamination. It’s essential that vegetable farmers realize that a similar scenario could occur with any other farm vegetable crop. The fact that it took almost three weeks to trace the source of the Spring outbreak is proof that the current recordkeeping system that is in use for reporting market farming activities is woefully inadequate.

Back in September 2018, Jon Fingas wrote a story for Engadget about Walmart’s plan to use blockchain technology to not only ease the minds of anxious shoppers: the retail giant wants their leafy greens distributors to use the technology so that the store can track incoming produce shipments from their different providers.

The blockchain will provide a secure ledger that will allow Walmart (and conceivably other retailers as well) to track vegetables (and potentially other fresh foods) from the farm or processor to the store. And this technology would make the information available to any store in the nation. By implementing blockchain technology for this purpose, it would be possible for anyone who uses it to track the source of an outbreak in seconds as opposed to days or longer, which is what happened during the Spring of 2018 with the Yuma, Arizona incident.

What Does This Mean for Farmers?

The nature of this safety alert, and the fear that accompanies not knowing where the source of this contamination is, frighten consumers. When stores that sell Romaine lettuce voluntarily remove it from their shelves so quickly, there is an even greater cause for concern – especially for farmers.

It wouldn’t be practical or cost effective for a small vegetable farm to use a blockchain system, but it makes sense for every market farming enterprise to use their farm management app to the fullest, and to tweak it to include critical information about when and where every vegetable crop is planted, and when each crop is harvested. Farmers, especially lettuce farmers will then be able to share this information with farmer’s market customers or people who participate in CSA programs that many farms have to keep sales up throughout the year.


Susan Klatz Beal is a full-time freelance writer and member of the Association for Garden Communicators. She is also a passionate organic flower and vegetable gardener. She is obsessed with hummingbirds and creating wildlife habitats to attract them to her garden. When she isn’t writing or tending to outdoor plants, she spends time starting seeds for every type of plant you can and cannot imagine.

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Part II – What to Expect When Going No-till

Welcome to Part II of This Series on No-till Farming.

We left off discussing the relationship of the land, what it produces, and the consumers who buy the end product. In this segment, we look again at relationships but we separate the land from the farmer. This is because there are two big things that happen in the successful conversion of farms from disc farming to no-till. First, the farmer changes and then the land changes. What this means is that the results are very dependent on how the farmer approaches this change.

The Land from Disc to No-till

It is kind of a blank slate – the land. Disc farming does many things, two of which are it breaks up the organic food webs and reduces organic matter in the soil. This is why plow and disc farms have thinner top layers usually with a compressed layer that acts like hardpan. Switching from disc to no-till essentially means that you have to undo all of the issues that disc farming creates. What you gain is better quality soil, a decrease in water and wind erosion, better saturation of rows from irrigation, better or equal crop yield, and eventually, fewer weeds. These are all end goals. So, what happens between the start and end goals?  Here is a snapshot of the first few years.

Years one-three – This is the big switch – Plan for success, but don’t expect a lot of what you do to change. Recordkeeping is a great tool – use it. For market farming the process of switching is a little different from big AG farms. The focus remains the same, building soil nutrients. Moving away from disc farming to no-till means you are moving away from the inputs needed to ramp a field up for spring growth. You should expect to increase nitrogen usage for the first several years. The soil is devoid of the organic means to produce nitrogen, but that changes over time and those costs decrease.

Equipment changes – the basic change is the removal of disc units and the implementation of drills or spike seeders. You also really want to pay attention to how you set up your drill so that it has the right pressure and depth. In no-till, the idea is to disturb the ground as little as possible. To that end, you switch from a tiller, plow or disc to a drill. The drill pokes a hole in the ground and your seeder seeds the hole. This method disturbs the soil biota the least and it keeps the soil aggregates larger, which means better water infiltration and improved soil hydration. The crop residue on the surface also helps the soil to retain moisture. As the years progress, the soil becomes better able to handle drought because the water saturates deeper.

The field prep from disc to no-till is basically to spread organic matter – the last crop – over the field. What begins to happen is that the soil biota begin to grow – the organisms that breakdown the crop residue multiply.

Weeds – You should not expect to see different types of weeds – At least not until year three. This is because no-till does not bring in new weeds and the soil on your vegetable farm already has an established seed bank. Some of those might be due to Roundup resistant weeds. In Big Ag you should expect to maintain a quality pre-emergent and post emergent herbicide program. That is a cost that will decrease as your no-till program becomes more established. One of the things you can do to speed up this process is to implement cover crops. For those of you who are running cattle, a smartly planned cover crop means mob grazing and that will not only help to cut down on weeds but will cut your cost for winter feeding too. Over time, weed control is helped by surface organic matter – mulch – which shades the seeds so that crop seeds get a head start and then they shade out the weeds. This can become 100% organic or you can continue with herbicide programs.

On smaller market farming operations, you have more control over dealing with weeds before they emerge. Occultation helps a great deal with weed control, but that is a process that is more difficult to manage and too costly for larger operations.

Management – You could expect a drop in yield for the first two years. You might be surprised with a larger yield. Much of that is dependent upon weather and crop management. Start with good recordkeeping and you might need a scheduling software app to help. Especially with market farming an app helps with crop management, planning and scheduling. You will also want to look at weed patterns – what is emerging and when. This is perhaps one of the biggest issues when switching from tiller, plow or disc to no-till. These are all changes that are going to impact both disc and no-till farming. They key really is recordkeeping. You want to focus on keeping track of things like weather and crop success and failure. Recordkeeping also helps with understanding seed selection. There is no reason to change what you plant or the seeds. There isn’t a disc type seed or a no-till seed. In both situations you want seeds with vigor – Good spring growth and root development. The factors that affect seed growth and yield are weather, soil quality, and water. Test plots help you determine what works on your land and what does not. All of this boils down to good recordkeeping, both for marketing farming and Big Ag.

Trust in what you do and what occurs. If there is a problem, understand it, solve it, and learn from it. The real benefits of no-till show up from year three onward. It will take that long for the land to transition, and from year three those benefits increase. The better you manage your crops the better the outcomes should be. Think of recordkeeping as data collection and the better your data the better the answers it can provide.

You will have to set up the land as you make this transition. Part of what that means is fertilizer. A plowed acre is missing much of the biota that would convert crop residue to usable nutrients for the next crop. The soil tends to be denser because it is missing the organic matter that eventually breaks down into soil.  These are a few of the challenges that you face in the first year. To overcome this requires good crop management.

Seed Selection – We touched on this a bit and you hear a lot about seed selection in no-till. Most of it is bunk – marketing from seed sellers. Grow test plots and go with what your farm proves. Never mind about the nay-sayers and those people who tried no-till once and never looked for solutions to the problems of transition.

A disc managed farm has relied on artificial inputs to help make up for the lag that mother earth has. Through better management of the crops you plant you gain a sustainable base from which to grow your farm. This process changes both the farmer and the land. What emerges can be quite remarkable.

David Stillwell organic gardener





About: David Stillwell is an organic gardener, entomologist, writer and student. He specializes in hymenoptera – bees, wasps, and ants, and the study of cecidology – Plant galls. He has a fondness for recognizing natural circles and energy webs that exist in nature — those interconnected natural systems such as food webs. He is a native of California and an advocate for conservation, locally grown, and farmer’s markets.

What is No-Till Farming?

No till soil sample

By David Stillwell

No-till farming is just as the name describes it is farming without tilling the ground. The system goes a bit deeper and is very much at odds with conventional farming. In this blog, we look at what is no-till farming and what it is not.

In the Beginning

When we arrived here we found fertile valleys and plains. We grew food, cotton, and crops. We grazed cattle, built cities, and grew our population and economy, but not without cost. That which we found fertile became depleted. We faced hardships such as the Dust Bowl. The way we farmed changed and modernized. Fewer people began to farm larger chunks of land, hand tools were replaced with machinery and chemicals replaced the natural cycle of replenishment and farming grew into Big Ag.

Today, not all consumers are onboard with the methods of Big Ag and many are going organic. What is changing is the way consumers buy food and with that change the market is shifting. Large market segments are turning away from mass produced food and embracing organically grown foods – non-GMO, hormone and antibiotic free (ranching.) People are embracing old-school ways of growing – farm to table, micro-farming, home gardening, market farming, and many others. A portion of those consumers are turning away from Big Ag and focusing on environmentally improved ways of growing vegetables & flowers and in the process, some small farm growers are embracing those challenges by taking up a position of caring for the land.

What is No-till Farming?

No-till farming is a series of relationships – with the land, with the food, with the crop, with a way of life. It is a return to a more natural way of growing food and one that embraces a responsibility – a stewardship and heritage – of the land. This is a return to sustainable small farm growing and food production and it is driven by several factors – consumer concern over genetically modified crops, their demand for organic foods, healthier lifestyles, and the understanding that populations are growing as is the demand for both food and land. There is also a bit of realization that the farther one goes with Big Ag the more one spends on inputs – fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, equipment, etc. What we are seeing is a resurgence in market farming, small farm businesses that are family owned, organic gardening, and growing crops that meet end-consumer demands for healthier lifestyles and that are not big companies. Consumers are putting their money where their ethical and environmental concerns are and that is driving changes in agriculture. Those include organic food, sustainable farming, small farm growing and not with corporate farms that do not stack up to their environmental concerns.

The Natural Cycles

Nature has a way and in the natural cycles the food webs support life. The plants take in energy and convert it to a usable format. Some organisms eat the plants and those organisms are then consumed. What remains is consumed by smaller organisms – insects, fungi, bacteria – and as the food becomes smaller it is broken down into elements such as nitrogen. That process is not fast and modern farmers “help” push their crops by introducing artificial fertilizers. In that process the farmer becomes less reliant on nature and more reliant on the chemical companies that manufacture fertilizers. What is lost are those “small” benefits from the soil – the biota, organic compounds, and soil structure. The idea that land must lay fallow to regenerate is not an idea that meshes with efficiency. You can just add fertilizer and the field is ready to go. No-till is about using the natural cycles to produce crops that are healthy, naturally sustainable, and trusted by the end-consumer.

Modern Farming

In modern farming, the farmer relies on inputs – fertilizers, herbicides, genetically modified seeds, etc. With no-till, the focus is on natural cycles and that means caring for the land and the biota that sustains it – earthworms, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, etc. We have seen in modern farming the loss of land through subsidence – the sinking of land. Generally, subsidence in farming is about erosion – The soil is washed or blown away. There is also the shrinking of soil through the loss of natural organisms, organic residues, etc. No-till land has a thicker surface soil layer than tilled farmland and that is because the soil is “fluffier” and less compact. Those attributes mean that the soil is able to better retain water on the top level and that there is less compaction of the soil layers between the top layer and the sub soil layer. That is important because it means that water can percolate down into the sub soil layer where plants access it on hot days and during times of drought. The organic material in soil also helps to keep the wind from blowing the soil away. When you drive through farm country during end of harvest you see clouds of dust kicked up by machinery stilling fields. Not only does that diminish air quality it causes soil loss. No-till helps to decrease soil loss and increase the benefits from those smaller organisms.

So, what is no-till farming? In short, it is the building of a positive relationship between the farmer, the land, and the consumer. Next month, I’ll follow up with a second in this series on No Till – What to Expect.

David Stillwell organic gardener

About: David Stillwell is an organic gardener, entomologist, writer and student. He specializes in hymenoptera – bees, wasps, and ants, and the study of cecidology – Plant galls. He has a fondness for recognizing natural circles and energy webs that exist in nature — those interconnected natural systems such as food webs. He is a native of California and an advocate for conservation, locally grown, and farmer’s markets.




Interesting videos:​2v1uwWylUdU



The Very Different Approaches in Barley and Cannabis Cultivation

Two plants: Cannabis and Barley have very different growing procedures. In this picture barley is growing in natural sunlight while cannabis grows inside in artificial light

In the famous words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from a cornfield.” This statement is both metaphorically spot-on and decidedly humbling as I sit in my office clicking away on the keyboard. The truth is that farming is anything but simple. For starters, every crop is unique in its ability to acclimate to various environmental conditions.

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What is Permaculture?

Students studying details during permaculture workshop

According to one of its founders, Bill Mollison, permaculture is “a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”1 But what does that mean, precisely?

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