The use of anhydrous ammonia as a fertilizer has its beginnings in the state of Mississippi as Mississippi State University agricultural researchers came up with the concept and developed application equipment.

Putting a gas into the soil to provide nitrogen for increasing plant growth was revolutionary in the 1930s and obviously didn’t have many believers outside chemists who could recognize the chemical process potential.

The American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers recently recognized the contribution of the agricultural researchers in Mississippi with its historic landmarks in agricultural and biological engineering awards. Plaques were provided for display at Mississippi State University’s main campus in the lobby of the Biological Engineering building and at the Delta Branch Experiment Station in Stoneville.

ASABE’s description and information on the plaque were provided in the society’s newsletter. “In 1932, J. O. Smith, agricultural engineer at Delta Branch Experiment Station in Stoneville, Miss., attached a small anhydrous ammonia cylinder to a plow in such a manner that the NH3 was released in the soil. The plow, a Georgia Stock, was pulled by a gray mule named Ike. This was the first known use of anhydrous ammonia as a soil-applied crop fertilizer. The crude apparatus and the anhydrous ammonia it applied provided a much-needed source of nitrogen for the otherwise rich alluvial soils of the Mississippi Delta.

“Agricultural engineer Felix Edwards and agronomist W. B. Andrews renewed application research in 1943, leading to the development of the anhydrous ammonia fertilizer industry. Their work established safe application techniques and equipment. It has resulted, through economical fertilization, in improved yield and quality of food and fiber crops throughout.”

These markers are the 56th of 57 total such honor plaques placed around the country by the ASABE. Other markers commemorate milestones and inventions such as the McCormick reaper, the John Deere plow, the New Holland hay baler and Eli Whitney’s cotton gin.

The 54th historical marker is another 1920s-1930s invention and development; the end products are widely obvious throughout the rural America—the circular, corrugated, galvanized steel grain bin. That historical marker was awarded in 2009 and is on the campus of Kansas State University.

Three awards have been presented in 2011; none were presented in 2010. There is a detailed process for inventions to be recognized by the ASABE. The recognition application and verification process can take years. It was a three-year process for the NH3 application historical marker approval.    

The reasoning behind the circular corrugated grain bin winning an award is explained in that historical marker. “Prior to the development of circular, corrugated, galvanized steel grain bins, prefabricated, non-corrugated steel bins were used because of cost, portability, rodent resistance and waterproof features, but bin capacity was limited.

“In the 1920’s, corrugated bins, which were larger in size and could support greater loads, were developed and became commercially available. In the 1930’s, research programs advanced their use, notably research by F. C. Fenton at Kansas State College of Agriculture and Applied Science and T. E. Long at North Dakota Agricultural College.

“Later advances in aeration, bin filling/emptying, in-bin drying and stirring, and safety ladders/egress contributed to their success. Today it is estimated that over 500,000 U.S. farm bins with capacity of over five billion bushels are in use. Beyond the farm, commercial bins have individual capacities as large as one million bushels.”

All 57 historic marker awards are listed on the ASABE Web site. Use this link to read more