What moves farmers to adopt nitrogen use efficiency?
Local impacts not visible enough. A lack of visible or tangible local consequences of nitrogen losses from farming operations makes further improvements of NUE a difficult sell. While many are aware of the role excess fertilizer can play in causing severe pollution problems, such as the Gulf of Mexico dead zone that kills fish over thousands of square miles, that impact is far from their backyard.
How much? Lack of trust in government or university recommendations of optimal fertilization rates, confusion over complex or inconsistent recommendations, and unclear advantages and credits for participation in NUE and best management practice programs are serious barriers to their more widespread adoption. In addition, most U.S. farmers currently get most of their information about NUE management practices from fertilizer, seed and feed retailers. If input dealers and crop consultants do not understand the need for the practices, then the farmers are highly unlikely to adopt them.
Not enough time. Most farmers are already working from before dawn to past dusk, so learning about and adopting new practices requires that the proposed innovations are compelling, easily implemented, and worth their time.
Old dogs resistant to new tricks. While many younger farmers are eager to adopt new technologies and internet-based information about NUE practices, the reality remains that changing longstanding practices that appeared to work for mom and dad or grandpa often meets resistance.
Attendees proposed these major solutions to move more farmers to adopt NUE practices:
1. Develop partnerships between industry, universities, governments, conservation NGOs, crop advisors, and farmers to demonstrate the most current, economically feasible best management practices in strategic locations across the U.S.—starting with targeted watersheds that are struggling with the largest nitrogen losses.
2. Develop more local on-farm examples in numerous regions of successful efforts that show it’s possible to improve NUE and reduce nitrogen losses while maintaining good yields and profitability.
3. Provide improved, continuing education to private sector retailers and advisors on the most up to date nutrient management practices. By increasing farmers’ trust in nutrient management recommendations the perception of risk will decrease, resulting in less need to apply nitrogen for “insurance” purposes.
4. Restore investments in research, education, and extension, which have been declining in the U.S. agricultural sectors. Federal and state governments must increase their support of knowledge-based agriculture, including both university-based and on-farm, watershed, and landscape-scale nitrogen management research and outreach. This should include long-term interdisciplinary research that integrates agronomic, ecological, economic and social science concerns around food production and environmental impacts.
5. Ensuring clean drinking water for generations to come is one of the most compelling reasons for increased improvements in NUE. Given the significant lag time that can occur between NUE adoption and reduced groundwater nitrate concentrations, action is needed now. A successful program started in the 1980s in the Platte River Valley of Nebraska provides a stellar example that effective clean-up of drinking water pollution is possible over the long term.