The tough battle of a farmer to provide a cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to fertilizers

As the agricultural industry faces rising costs for fertilizers and climate-related pressure to reduce the use of these products, some farmers are looking for different ways to feed their crops.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine caused prices to rise amid a global fertilizer shortage last spring, which put many farmers in a difficult situation: paying skyrocketing prices for traditional fertilizers or considering options.

Some have resorted to the conventional method of spreading manure over the fields (which has caused a shortage of animal poop in parts of North America), while others have considered switching to a variety of substitutes to provide nutrients to their crops.

One such alternative is a technology designed by Gary Lewis, a southern Alberta farmer who grows mustard, wheat and yellow peas on his 1,600 acres of land this summer. To grow those crops, he doesn’t use traditional fertilizers. In fact, he hasn’t used any in the past 20 years.

Instead, it relies on the technology it has developed called Bio-Agtive, which collects exhaust gases from its tractors and injects the material into the soil as a carbon-based biofertilizer.

Lewis says interest in Bio-Agtive has increased this year, likely led by dollars and cents. With last year’s drought, some farmers struggled to pay their bills, then, he said, when fertilizer prices soared this spring, many family-owned farms again suffered from the financial squeeze.

“If there is no need to change, you will not change,” he said, noting that he hopes the research conducted on the effectiveness of Bio-Agtive will stimulate more people to adopt the technology.

Tinkering with tractors and plant science

The fourth-generation farmer and father of five says he has come close to financial ruin in the years when his crops and soil have failed.

A few decades ago he began to doubt the amount of fertilizer he was using and became intrigued by the idea of ‚Äč‚Äčtaking the carbon exhaust from the tractor’s diesel engine and putting it into the soil.

Lewis, who is also an auto mechanic, has started tinkering in his workshop. His wife, Barb, said he became obsessed with plant science.

Lewis and his wife, Barb, on their farm, located near the Pincher Creek community in southern Alberta. (Donna McEligott / CBC)

“He was reading science books on plant nutrition,” he said. “Then I would see him making plants in egg cartons, putting seeds and dropping emissions from vehicle exhaust and seeing them grow.”

After much trial and error, Lewis built his own carbon capture and sequestration unit. The hoses connect your tractor’s diesel exhaust to a system that cools the gases. The filtered charcoal water is spread along with the seeds or piped through its irrigation system. He says he has seen almost immediate improvements in his crops and soil.

“C02 is the building blocks of life. It made sense that I could take the emissions from that tractor and put it through the air delivery system with the seed and try it out. Why not? This is experimenting,” he said.

Alternative options

The spike in fuel and fertilizer costs are the main reason this year’s crop is considered the most expensive in Canadian history.

Other startups offering alternatives to traditional fertilizers say they are experimenting too increased demand. Some of the companies, including Pivot Bio, Anuvia, and Kula Bio, are pushing plant-based fertilizer products and the use of microbes as a cheaper and more environmentally friendly option.

The federal government announced a 30% reduction target for fertilizer emissions at the end of 2020 and recently concluded a months-long consultation process on that climate target.

An industry-led report released earlier this month suggests Canadian farmers can likely reach only half of the federal government’s goal by increasing the efficiency and accuracy of traditional fertilizer use.

Since 1990, the agricultural sector has generated about 10 percent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to the federal government.

One of the main challenges faced by alternative fertilizer startups is getting farmers to try it. Many farmers are skeptical and hesitate to risk their livelihoods with a new product.

Over the years, Lewis has patented his technology, went to agricultural fairs, and talked to manufacturers.

A few hundred farmers have used the Bio-Agtive system, which mounts to the front of tractors and sells for between $ 65,000 and $ 95,000. Australian Mick Dennis is one of them.

“It didn’t take long to realize that it was a good concept and it works very well in harmony with nature,” Dennis said in a telephone interview, noting that he has seen an increase in the development of his crops’ roots and organic matter. on the ground since he started using the system.

“It’s not just Bio-Agtive, it’s Bio-Agtive and good agricultural practices”.

Although the Lewis system has found a level of success with some farmers, there is still not enough scientific evidence to determine whether it produces a low-cost and environmentally friendly alternative to commercial fertilizers, while still producing crops of similar size. At least not yet.

A farmer shows a handful of fertilizer. Considering the high price of fuel and fertilizer this year, experts call 2022 the most expensive crop in Canadian history. (Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press)

Research in progress

More than a decade ago, Jill Clapperton investigated whether Bio-Agtive could be harmful to the soil as part of her research work at Agriculture Canada. It wasn’t harmful, she said.

Whether Bio-Agtive was better than a commercial fertilizer is another story. Clapperton found that there were slight differences between a field without fertilizer and those treated with Lewis tractor emissions.

“But the [crop yields] they were significantly lower than when using fertilizer, “he said.

However, in subsequent research he took part in as a consultant at Montana State University-Northern in 2012, seeds treated with the Lewis system were found to have fewer fungal soil diseases.

“In fact, the soot and trace minerals from the exhaust that were coating the seed and that little bit of heat were actually acting as a seed treatment,” Clapperton said.

Questions about whether the soil maintains Bio-Active emissions and for how long, or how fields remain without fertilizers compared to those treated with Bio-Active emissions.

Lewis examines the results of laboratory tests performed on seeds from his farm that were produced using the Bio-Agtive system, also tested by researchers at Olds College. (Donna McElligott / CBC)

“I’m immediately skeptical because I’m a scientist,” says Angela Bedard-Haughn, dean of the College of Agriculture and Bio Resources at the University of Saskatchewan.

“I think there is room in agriculture for all scales of practice, but” he said, “basically, the science has to be there.”

Conceptually, the idea behind Bio-Agtive makes sense, according to Daniel Alessi, Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Alberta, although more research is needed to find out how effective Bio-Agtive is compared to commercial fertilizers.

“Adding carbon to the soil in the form of carbon nanotubes and other black carbon – very fine particles and diesel exhaust gases – will induce colonization of microbes which in turn can release nutrients from minerals into the soil,” he said. . , noting that this could improve soil health and ultimately crop production.

Further research is currently underway as scientists from Olds College in Alberta measure crops and collect tissue and soil samples for laboratory analysis. A final report on the results of the Bio-Agtive system is expected from the college in early 2023.

While anticipating these results, Lewis continues to meet farmers, building new bio-active systems and selling them to people willing to try something new to escape the high price of traditional fertilizers.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: