Midwestern BioAg CEO Tony Michaels told one of the most influential audiences of scientists and policy leaders in the U.S. that many of the necessary advances in agriculture were already happening on Midwestern farms.
In a keynote address to the annual meeting of the National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE), Michaels described progress at several farms currently being managed with the help of Midwestern BioAg products and services.
In each case, before touching on environmental issues, he made it clear that these farms have increased their profits. For Michaels and the BioAg team, that is always the first priority.
He described the progress on Chad Gleason’s farm (featured earlier in this newsletter), noting substantial yield gains and highlighting the societal benefits of the increase in soil organic matter on the Gleason farm.
“Soil organic matter has gone from an average of 3.27 percent to 4.59 percent,” Michaels said. “This is extraordinary. For every 1 percent increase in soil organic matter, 18 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents are sequestered in the soil. It’s a significant contribution.”
Yield Gains & Reduced Climate Impacts
He labeled Gary Manternach’s farm, in Monticello, Iowa, as a corn-belt archetype, saying it looks to the casual observer like so many farms across eastern Iowa — with one key exception.
“They made one big change in their practices,” Michaels said. “They changed what they put on their soil. We worked with them to apply calcium soil amendments. And we gave them balanced fertilizers to match their soil — going well beyond the standard NPK.
“Their yields have nearly doubled, and they did it by keeping their nitrogen use steady. So they’ve obviously succeeded. But there is more.” Because they kept their use of nitrogen stable, the yield increase meant they were close to cutting their nitrogen use per bushel of corn in half.
“For every 1 percent increase in soil organic matter, 18 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents are sequestered in the soil. It’s a significant contribution.”
“That’s a huge climate benefit,” Michaels said. “The production of synthetic nitrogen is energy intensive and comes with a high greenhouse gas burden. What they’ve done is incredible.”
And these farmers are not alone. Many BioAg customers have reduced the climate impacts associated with food grown on their farm — though many are unaware that they’ve done so.
The conference, titled “The Food, Energy & Water Nexus,” was attended by more than 1,200 scientists and policy makers. It was held in Alexandria, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC.
Michaels shared data from 43 farms that are relatively new to the Midwestern BioAg fertility program. These farms, on average, went from 150 bushels of corn to 180, most of them gaining that increase in the first three years.
A subset of those farms had soil samples available before and after the multi-year application of Midwestern BioAg products. The average increase in soil organic matter was 0.44%, a significant leap, given that the maximum time frame was five years.
Challenging Policy-Makers to Incentivize Nutrient Efficiency
Michaels challenged policy-makers to start thinking more about systems approaches to their work.
He said that regulations tend to target single problems, and most products do the same. But in both cases, the problems don’t exist in isolation.
“The best solutions come from considering them in the context of the whole system,” Michaels said. “We need any new regulations to be the result of more systems thinking, and to pursue more systems outcomes.”
He said it was time to “incentivize nutrient efficiency.” That is, farmers who find ways to apply less commercial nitrogen and phosphorous should perhaps be rewarded because they are helping avoid the societal costs incurred when those nutrients are overused and run off into waterways or are released into the atmosphere.
He also challenged policy-makers to find “better ways to align the interests of landowners and renting farmers.”
“We find that some of our customers will use our products and practices on the land they own, but not on the land they rent.” Michaels said. “They figure that if they improve the quality of the land they are renting, then the rent may just go up the following year. There is little incentive for renting farmers to build soil health for the long-term when they may not have access to those lands in the very next year or two.”
Michaels suggested this issue needed additional thought and discussion.
Michaels used photographs to make sure conference participants had a better sense of farms and farming. He described the “achingly beautiful” Otter Creek Farm, run by Midwestern BioAg founder, Gary Zimmer. He showed slides of the fields at Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright Farm managed with Midwestern BioAg fertility, again focusing on the beauty of a viable, healthy farm.
In conversations after the speech, Michaels ended up in several discussions ignited by the specific examples he used.
“We see farms every day that are solving these challenges — and they are making more money doing it,” Michaels said.
“Promoting the solutions that work today is one of the most important steps toward a more sustainable food supply, healthier people and a healthier planet.”