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One farmer’s uphill battle to provide cheaper, more environmentally friendly alternative to fertilizer

Because the agriculture {industry} faces hovering prices for fertilizers and climate-related strain to cut back the usage of such merchandise, some farmers are alternative ways to feed their crops.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine induced costs to spike amid a worldwide scarcity of fertilizer this previous spring, which put many farmers in a troublesome spot: pay sky-high costs for conventional fertilizers or think about completely different choices.

Some resorted to the standard technique of spreading manure on fields (which induced a scarcity of animal poop in some components of North America), whereas others thought-about switching to quite a lot of substitutes to offer vitamins to their crops.

A type of alternate options is a know-how designed by Gary Lewis, a southern Alberta farmer who’s rising mustard, wheat and yellow peas on his 1,600-hectares of land this summer time. To develop these crops, he is not utilizing conventional fertilizer. In reality, he hasn’t used any for the final 20 years.

As a substitute, he depends on the know-how he is developed referred to as Bio-Agtive, which collects exhaust from his tractors and injects the fabric again into the bottom as a carbon-based biofertilizer.

Lewis says curiosity in Bio-Agtive jumped this 12 months, probably pushed by {dollars} and cents. With the drought final 12 months, some farmers struggled to pay their payments, then, he mentioned, when fertilizer costs spiked this spring, many household farms once more felt the monetary squeeze.

“If there is not any want to vary, you will not change,” he mentioned, noting that he hopes analysis being performed into the effectiveness of Bio-Agtive will spur extra folks to undertake the know-how.

Tinkering with tractors and plant science

The fourth-generation farmer and father of 5 says he is come near monetary damage in years when his crops and soil have failed.

A couple of a long time in the past he started to query the quantity of fertilizer he was utilizing and have become intrigued with the thought of ​​taking the carbon exhaust from the tractor’s diesel engine and feeding it into the soil.

Lewis, who can also be an auto mechanic, began tinkering in his workshop. His spouse, Barb, mentioned he grew to become obsessive about plant science.

Lewis and his spouse, Barb, on their farm, positioned close to the neighborhood of Pincher Creek in southern Alberta. (Donna McElligott/CBC)

“He was studying science books all about plant vitamin,” she mentioned. “Then I’d see him make crops in egg cartons, placing seeds and dropping emissions from the exhaust of autos and watch them develop.”

After loads of trial and error, Lewis constructed his personal carbon seize and sequestration unit. Hoses join his tractor’s diesel exhaust to a system that cools the gases. The filtered carbon water is unfold together with the seeds or piped by his irrigation system. He says he noticed nearly quick enhancements in his crops and soil.

“C02 is the constructing blocks of life. It made sense that I may take the emissions from that tractor and put it by the air supply system with the seed and simply strive it. Why not? That is experimenting,” he mentioned.

Various choices

The spike in gas and fertilizer prices are the primary cause why this 12 months’s crop is taken into account the most costly in Canadian historical past.

Different startups pitching alternate options to conventional fertilizers say they, too, are experiencing elevated demand. A few of the corporations, together with Pivot Bio, Anuvia and Kula Bio, are pushing plant-based fertilizer merchandise and the usage of microbes as a less expensive and extra environmentally pleasant choice.

The federal authorities introduced a 30 p.c discount goal for fertilizer emissions in late 2020 and lately wrapped up a months-long session course of on that local weather aim.

An industry-led report launched earlier this month suggests Canada’s farmers can probably solely obtain half of the federal authorities’s goal by growing the effectivity and precision of conventional fertilizer use.

Since 1990, the agriculture sector has generated roughly 10 per cent of Canada’s complete greenhouse fuel emissions yearly, in accordance with the federal authorities.

One of many foremost challenges confronted by various fertilizer startups is convincing farmers to strive it. Many farmers are skeptical and hesitant to danger their livelihoods on a brand new product.

Over time, Lewis patented his know-how, traveled to farm exhibits and talked to producers.

A couple of hundred farmers have used the Bio-Agtive system, which mounts on the entrance of tractors and sells for between $65,000-$95,000. Australian Mick Dennis is one in every of them.

“It did not take lengthy to determine it was a great idea and works very nicely in concord with nature,” Dennis mentioned throughout a telephone interview, noting that he is seen a rise within the root growth of his crops and the natural matter within the soil since he began utilizing the system.

“That is not simply Bio-Agtive, it is Bio-Agtive and good farming practices.”

Whereas Lewis’s system has discovered a stage of success with some farmers, there nonetheless is not sufficient scientific proof to find out if it produces a decrease price and environmentally friendlier various to business fertilizer whereas nonetheless producing comparable crop sizes. At the least not but.

A farmer exhibits a handful of fertilizer. Contemplating the excessive worth of gas and fertilizer this 12 months, consultants are calling 2022 the most costly crop in Canadian historical past. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Analysis underway

Greater than a decade in the past, Jill Clapperton investigated whether or not Bio-Agtive might be detrimental to the soil as a part of her job as a analysis scientist with Agriculture Canada. It was not dangerous, she mentioned.

Whether or not Bio-Agtive was higher than a business fertilizer is one other story. Clapperton discovered there have been slight variations between a discipline with out fertilizer versus these handled with the emissions from Lewis’s tractor.

“However the [crop yields] had been considerably decrease than once you use fertilizer,” she mentioned.

Nonetheless, in subsequent analysis she took half in as a advisor with Montana State College-Northern in 2012, seeds handled with Lewis’s system had been discovered to have fewer soil-borne fungal illnesses.

“In reality, the soot and the hint minerals from the exhaust that had been coating the seed and that bit of warmth had been really performing as a seed therapy,” mentioned Clapperton.

On the time, Bio-Agtive was in its infancy and Lewis mentioned yield consequence variations in contrast with fertilizer had been insignificant. The system has developed and the know-how is now in its sixth technology.

Questions on whether or not the soil retains the Bio-Agtive emissions, and for the way lengthy, or how fields with out fertilizer in comparison with these handled with Bio-Agtive emissions stay.

Lewis appears to be like over the outcomes of laboratory exams accomplished on seeds from his farm that had been produced utilizing the Bio-Agtive system, which can also be being examined by researchers at Olds Faculty. (Donna McElligott/CBC)

“I am instantly skeptical as a result of I am a scientist,” says Angela Bedard-Haughn, dean of the Faculty of Agriculture and Bio Assets on the College of Saskatchewan.

“I believe there’s room in agriculture for all scales of apply, however,” she mentioned, “backside line, the science needs to be there.”

Conceptually, the thought behind Bio-Agtive is sensible, in accordance with Daniel Alessi, professor of Earth Sciences on the College of Alberta, though extra analysis is required to know the way efficient Bio-Agtive is in comparison with business fertilizers.

“In case you add carbon to soil within the type of carbon nanotubes and different black carbon — that’s, very advantageous particles and diesel exhaust — it does induce the colonization of microbes that themselves can then launch vitamins from minerals within the soil,” he mentioned , noting this might enhance soil well being and, finally, crop manufacturing.

Extra analysis is presently underway as scientists at Olds Faculty in Alberta measure crop yields and accumulate tissue and soil samples for laboratory evaluation. A ultimate report on outcomes from the Bio-Agtive system is anticipated from the faculty in early 2023.

Whereas he anticipates these findings, Lewis continues assembly with farmers, constructing new Bio-Agtive programs and promoting them to folks prepared to strive one thing new to flee the excessive worth of conventional fertilizers.

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