Skyrocketing prices for chemical fertilizers is creating hardship across the US farmscape — but there’s a silver lining: Manure is making a much-needed comeback.
There is much more at stake, though. Pivoting from chemical to organic fertilizers can substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions and toxic runoff from farms, improve water quality, rebuild the failing health of soil that’s been saturated with chemicals for decades and help revive rural economies.
Before World War II, US farmland was mainly fertilized by animal manure, yet by the mid-1900s our increasingly industrialized crop and livestock operations were creating a severe imbalance in natural nitrogen cycles. Profligate overuse of chemical fertilizers in some regions contrasted with mountains of unused animal waste piled up in others. The current trend toward natural fertilizers taps into the wisdom of traditional agriculture: It recouples livestock and crop production and restores, little by little, a heathier balance of nitrogen in our food systems.
Manure has come in and out of favor as an alternative to chemical fertilizer in recent decades, rising and falling in popularity in direct proportion to energy prices. (Many fertilizers are derived from the oil and natural gas industry.) A surging oil market in 2008 first helped establish a modern market for manure, yet farmers reverted to commercial fertilizers as soon as they became affordable again. There was another uptick in 2012 alongside high fossil fuels prices, but again the trend didn’t hold.
This time it’s different — this wave can endure,” says Iowa State University professor Daniel Anderson, also known as @DrManure on Twitter. Farmers are learning to trust the product while technologies for processing and distributing manure are rapidly improving. But the current manure revival won’t persist unless the public and private sectors step in to help drive the demand for dung and build stability into a fickle market. The USDA plans to launch a $250 million grant program this summer to support natural fertilizer producers — an important step, but more should be done to encourage market growth.
The market for manure is still small and hard to measure relative to the $171 billion global fertilizer market. Chemical fertilizers are many times more concentrated in nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous content than natural fertilizers, and far less odiferous, which makes them easier to handle, transport long distances and distribute with precision in the field. Animal waste is not easily (or pleasantly) portable — the muck is either shoveled raw into a truck or pumped by long hoses from lagoons onto neighboring farms. That’s kept markets hyper-local, with the product rarely crossing state borders.
Yet one and a half billion tons of solid nitrogen-rich animal waste are produced annually by livestock operations in the US, and for decades the value of this resource has been squandered. Manure stimulates the microbiology of soil while adding organic matter, and that means improved long-term productivity and better capacity for carbon absorption in the soil: For every 1% increase in organic matter, an acre of soil locks away about 10 more tons of carbon.
This can spell value for farmers jockeying to enter emerging soil-carbon markets. Moreover, synthetic fertilizers, which are routinely over-applied on industrial farms, evaporate from fields to form nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas up to 20 times more potent than CO2.
Increasing supply-chain disruptions in global fertilizer markets created by Russia’s war on Ukraine are adding to concerns about the rising pressures of climate change on agriculture to help convince farmers of the value of organic fertilizer.
Abe Sandquist, a former USDA soil conservationist-turned-dung-entrepreneur who spent decades establishing a market for manure in the Midwest, is now regularly getting bought out of his supply. “The light has switched on — farmers understand that our natural products are superior to commercial fertilizers,” he told me. Unable to keep up with demand, Sandquist is now selling futures contracts on the manure he collects. But many manure entrepreneurs worry that once the war in Ukraine ends, interest in natural products will subside as chemical fertilizers drop in price.
For all the vast and timely benefits of manure in a nutrient-constrained agriculture industry, no coordinated effort has yet been made to establish, for example, local and regional manure processing and storage facilities that could collect, process and concentrate manure so it can be more easily handled and transported, while ensuring against toxic runoff. The US Department of Agriculture should help establish such processing facilities as pilot projects in states like North Carolina, for example, that have high concentrations of animal feeding operations and comparatively little local sustainable use for the manure. The USDA should also incentivize and reward farmers who convert to natural fertilizers from chemical products, especially those who are committing to long-term contracts that can help establish certainty in the market.
To keep momentum going, the USDA, along with private investors, can invest in the new generation of companies that are modernizing the manure market. Bazooka Farmstar and Puck Custom Enterprises, for example, are making important advances in liquid manure handling equipment. Jamesway and Houle are making so-called “honeywagons” that help with more precise distribution of solid animal waste on fields. Ohio-based EcoChar has developed a way to burn manure to make an ash product that functions as a dry fertilizer. And the North Carolina startup, Phinite, makes manure-drying systems that are now in demand from farmers as far away as Minnesota and Illinois. These young companies need public and private sector support as they scale their operations.
Today, manure — which has for too long been misunderstood as the trash of industrial agriculture — is finally being recognized as treasure, and public and private sector leaders in agriculture should do their part to be sure its value endures.
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
• Higher Food Prices Aren’t Making Farmers Richer: Adam Minter
• The New Agri-Giant Invading the U.S. Heartland: Javier Blas
• The World’s Food System Is Too Dependent on Wheat: Jessica Fanzo
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Amanda Little is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering agriculture and climate. She is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University and author of “The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World.”
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