Ammonia Extracts in Organic Farming w/ Dr. Jerry Hatfield, PhD
Interview with Jerry Hatfield, Retired Laboratory Director at the USDA Agricultural Research Service
The debate surrounding ammonia extracts has become a hot topic in the organic farming world since the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) requested that ammonia extracts be placed on the prohibited list. To bring some clarity to this issue, we welcome Dr. Jerry Hatfield to Organics Unpacked to discuss the use of ammonia extracts in organic agriculture. Dr. Hatfield, who is now retired, had served as Laboratory Director for the USDA’s National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment for over 30 years.
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TOM: Hello, everyone. The topic for today’s episode of Organics Unpacked is ammonia extracts. Ammonia extracts have become a hot topic since the National Organic Standards Board, or NOSB, has requested that these ammonia extracts be placed on the prohibited list and not used in organic farming. As you might expect, there are people who support this move, but there are also many people in the organic world who see this as a significant setback to the organic movement. Many of these people believe this decision by NOSB was based on emotion and not science. To bring some clarity to this issue, I have with me today Dr. Jerry Hatfield. In the world of soil health, Dr. Hatfield is pretty much a household name. Dr. Hatfield is now retired, but, until two years ago, he served as USDA’s Research Service Director for the National Lab of Ag and Environment.
INTRO: Welcome to Organics Unpacked, a podcast for the business-minded organic grower — an interview podcast where we hear from the top experts in the commercial organic industry — with a focus on the business elements of organic growing both in and out of the field. You will gain insight and grow your operation. This show is brought to you ad-free by Avé Organics, a Wilbur-Ellis company. To learn more about Avé Organics, visit our program notes. In the meantime, enjoy the show.
TOM: Jerry, welcome to the show.
JERRY: Thanks, Tom, and I’m glad to be here and everything. I appreciate the opportunity to dive into this topic. I think there’s a lot of confusion about ammonia, ammonia extracts and manure — all those things that we really have not taken a deep dive in a really detailed discussion about — and you’re right. I think there’s a lot of emotion that we can talk about and everything, but hopefully we can bring some clarity to this as we go along and everything.
About Dr. Jerry Hatfield
TOM: Absolutely. So, Jerry, as a part of the podcast, I always ask people about their background and what gives them the expertise to talk about the subject today. So, if you give us a little rundown on your background, that’d be great.
JERRY: So, yeah, let me kind of place this all in perspective for you and everything. My background is actually in this really complex world we call the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum. So I deal with all of these linkages of energy between the soil and the plant to the atmosphere. My PhD is actually in agricultural climatology, looking at weather impacts on this. So you can always say, ‘What does a guy that studies weather impacts on agriculture know about manure?’ But if you look at this, when I first came to the National Soil Tilth Lab, back in 1989, I spent a lot of time looking at environmental impacts from livestock operations, and that always revolves around manure. So I got a deep-dive understanding of this. Then, in recent years, I spent a lot of time on how improving soil helps climate resilience, improving water and improving nutrient availability. And so manure becomes part of that puzzle, as well, because the manure is one way in which we can add carbon back as part of the whole soil health processes and everything. So it’s just been kind of a convoluted journey over my career in terms of all of this. So you can make all sorts of puns about where I’m headed and all of this, but I do have a real conviction that we need to think about how we improve agricultural efficiency. How do we look at the natural resources that we have? We’ve got water. We’ve got sunlight. We’ve got CO2 in the air. We process all those through a plant, and then we put it through an animal that creates that manure. So manure is basically a very complex recycling system if you think about it, and so what’s the best we can do for agriculture that helps us provide food security and protect environmental quality at the same time?
Manure as a Resource
TOM: Right. This podcast is about organic farming, and the basis of fertility always in organic farming comes down to, most all the time, some level of manure. So I know that ARS has been doing a lot of work in the world of manure, and manure sheds have put out some recent articles. But let’s just talk about manure as a soil resource, as a fertility resource, and I think today we’re especially focused on probably nitrogen as it relates to ammonia extracts. So give us a little background in how manure has traditionally been used for nitrogen fertilizer and the pros and cons of it, especially in the organic world.
JERRY: Yeah, I think that we tend to value manure from a nutrient content point of view, but let’s kind of set the stage maybe a little differently. Because you realize that when we think about improving our soils — and, particularly, in the organic systems — it’s utilizing manure, not only for its nutrient source and the N, P and K that’s with it, but also the carbon piece. And, really, we never talk about carbon as part of manure, but you look at its impact on the soil. That’s where it really begins to derive its value. We often talk about residues in soil, carbon-nitrogen ratios of corn stalks that are 50 to one: 50 parts of carbon and one part of nitrogen. Manure is in that sweet spot. Maybe we’re at five or 10 to one. It really has a positive impact on it, but that’s the soil health piece of this that we can get into. The nitrogen piece — and let’s just look at the history of manure — this is always fascinating to me. Because if we go back and look at the history of agriculture in the United States, it’s that we’ve built our agricultural enterprises on manure. You think about it. We had farm animals on a farmstead to produce the manure that fertilized the crops, and so we had systems that were basically closed-loop systems. We took the grain. We fed the animals. We put the manure back on. We produced the crop, and we had a much different ethic. But then, when we started moving more to industrial agriculture, manure went from being a resource to a waste, and you actually see that in the scientific literature.
We refer to manure as a waste. How do you dispose of it? How do you look at all this? Well, once it became — in the mental piece of this — as a waste, then we thought about, ‘How do you get rid of the nutrients that are in it?’ You look at what we did with manure storage. When we started putting manure into legumes, moved it into deep pits and put it in all those practices, the whole goal of that was to get rid of as much nitrogen as possible. So we promoted the conversion of nitrogen from the manure into ammonia to get it into the atmosphere. Well, now that’s a bad thing. We don’t really want that. So we took advantage of a microbial process that we know works in manure. It works in the soil because the first thing that microbes do when they digest nitrogen — and in part of this carbon-nitrogen complex — is that ammonia is created. So we’ve got ammonia going on in the soil. We’ve got ammonia going on in manure, and so we’ve just been releasing it back out. We did a really good job of basically saying, ‘We’ll get our nitrogen content down.’ We couldn’t volatilize P and K, so they remained in manure. So we were putting manure on as basically a P and K source and applying nitrogen through commercial fertilizers. You just think about what we’ve done with agriculture. So, in some cases, we are to blame for the problems we have today because of our attitudes. But I think, in a lot of this right now, people are rediscovering the value of manure. I think they’ll rediscover the value of manure even more as the price of commercial N goes up, as well.
TOM: That’s for sure.
JERRY: I’m always fascinated by how far we can move manure relative to different systems, depending on what the price of commercial fertilizer is. But from an environmental point of view, you look at all this ammonia coming out in there, and now there’s all this, ‘What does ammonia do in terms of creating 2.5 or 10-micron particles out there that are health hazards?’ There’s a lot of concern about that. We’ve got health concerns on one side, but I think the other piece is, ‘How do we really begin to capture the value of the manure that we have available to us?’ And I think this is where nitrogen really becomes much more at the center point of what we’re talking about. How do we keep that nitrogen where it is and put it back to that crop so that we can really grow that crop as efficiently as possible?
Environmental & Health Concerns of Ammonia
TOM: Right. I think, like all things, there’s good and bad about anything, and manure is a great resource. But there are certainly some environmental challenges with manure as far as runoff and water quality and, as you said, even the help of people as that ammonia comes off. So that ammonia: talk a little bit about the health concern of that. Is it a big deal? Is it a little deal?
JERRY: Well, actually, I think, as in all cases, it depends.
JERRY: Yeah, I love being able to do the ‘dependent’ thing. I think if you really sit and look at this, we start talking about concentrated animal feeding operations, large amounts of manure going out. That’s no different than ammonia that comes off of waste treatment plants, as well. There has been a lot of attention paid to that. Are these point sources of ammonia that go into the atmosphere? What has been very difficult is to track that ammonia that comes off and says, ‘How much 2.5 or 10-micron particles are generated out of that?’ That connection has been, really, very fuzzy, in my opinion. We know it occurs, but just to be able to say that a 10,000-cattle operation generates this amount of 2.5 and 10 has been difficult to come up with.
TOM: Okay, so at least we know that there are real health issues coming off manure in the form of ammonia. And the less we let go, the better it is, right?
JERRY: Let’s just think about it from that perspective. Our goal in agriculture should be to conserve the nutrients that we have in the best way possible because it adds value to us. And you can get it back to close the loop relative to organic production. If we want to use that manure source as our nutrient source for organic production, we really need to think about how we capture that nutrient and make it available to that crop because that’s where our efficiency is coming from.
TOM: So let’s start to talk about some technologies of how we can take raw manure. And we can actually preserve more of the nutrient value or capture more of the nutrient value so that we can create this more closed-loop system, that we’re all interested in the environment, especially, I think, organic farmers. So we’ve got raw manure. So I often think one of the first steps that we can do is composting, right? So, if we take raw manure and we compost it, we get a material that is altered. But how is it altered, Jerry? What does composting actually do?
JERRY: Composting is controlled degradation, controlled decay. Let’s think about it that way. A lot of people wouldn’t think about it from that perspective, but think about what happens in a compost pile. You put in the raw product and everything else. Say you got some soil with it. You end up creating a compost material that is not recognizable from its original forms. If you have a home compost bin, you put all sorts of vegetables in there or leaves or anything else, and they become unrecognizable. But that product that comes out of that, we’ve altered the carbon-nitrogen ratio. We’ve decayed a lot of the material in there. We’ve made it much more into usable form. In the whole process, all we’ve done is, basically, utilized the bacterial and microbial degradation processes. And you think about composting. What’s one of the critical things that you have to do in composting? That is to keep it stirred so that you keep the oxygen content in there and so that you’re getting the aerobic bacteria and aerobic microbial systems to work. But at the same time, while they’re working, because they are microorganisms, they’re giving off ammonia. We’re actually losing nitrogen out of that system, but we create a very valuable product out of that. But if you look at the nutrient content, we’ve disappeared a lot of that, but we’ve made things available because of the whole. Microbes by themselves? They’ve got a lot of protein in them, which forms nitrogen. You put that into the soil. Other microbes digest those and make that nutrient available. We’re gaining some things. There’s just a lot of work to create a good compost, as well. People that do it well, here’s a great avenue for getting rid of lawn waste, a lot of tree clippings. Cities that have a lot of foliage waste and everything else, this is a perfect way to put that back into a usable form.
TOM: Sure. But again, if it’s not managed well, we can lose a lot of the nitrogen, right?
JERRY: Exactly. You flip it over. All of a sudden, it gets wet. It gets into an anaerobic state, and you have a really stinky pile. Think about a compost system that’s run well versus one that’s not. Poorly-run composts smell a lot like sewage treatment plants at times because they’re anaerobic.
Defining Ammonia Extracts
TOM: Right. Composting is a step forward for organic farmers, right? Versus raw manure, especially if it’s done right. But it’s not always done right, so we have some trade-offs there. But then, let’s talk about this new technology, Jerry, of ammonia extracts, and I know you have been following it over the years. Tell us exactly what ammonia extract is, what the variations are, what maybe the pluses and minuses are as compared to maybe raw manure in composting, just the continuum of moving down the road.
JERRY: Yeah, let’s just start about this process of raw manure. You think about raw manure going into composting. One of the things that I think we need to recognize with the composting process is that we’ve made a little bit more uniform product. We keep stirring it up. One of the knocks against raw manure is how much variability there is. Well, it’s just like the variability between all of us. So manure has variability, as well, and so composting is one way to kind of homogenize that. So, then, we go to the next step, and you think about, ‘Now, let’s look at this digestion process.’ But when we start looking at the ammonia extracts, it’s now putting it into a system in which we’re not letting that ammonia go back to the atmosphere, but you’re basically capturing it. So that extraction process is really, in a very broad sense, nothing more than being able to capture that ammonia that’s given off by all the microbial activity that’s out there. It is a biological process. Just like — we think about it this way — what do we do in terms of growing corn? We take CO2 and sunlight and water, and we create the sugars that make the grain. That happens through that whole metabolic process. Well, ammonia extracts, in some senses, is that we’ve just captured the off-gassing of a microbial process that’s out there, a very complex metabolic process.
TOM: Right. So we’re taking manure, a natural resource, right? And before, when you apply manure, a lot of times, through the application — the hauling — we were losing that ammonia into the atmosphere anyway, which is not a good thing. But in ammonia extracts — I’m asking you if this is right — are we just taking that raw manure and saying, ‘Okay, before we lose that ammonia into the atmosphere, we’re going to capture it, and we’re going to put it into a usable form.’ We’re not making up any new nitrogen. We’re not, so if you would address that?
JERRY: Yeah, I mean, let’s just think about that. Let’s just take a gallon jar. Put some manure in it, and we could do one of two things. We could put a lid on that gallon jar, or we could not put a lid on it. Well, if we just put that gallon jar out there by itself with no lid on it, that ammonia is going to go up into the atmosphere. But if we put a lid on it and put a syringe into it so we could capture that ammonia, all we’ve done is prevent it from escaping into the atmosphere. So, in some senses, we’re not creating anything new. We’re basically capturing what’s there so that the positive balance is the nitrogen that would have escaped anyway. We’ve now put it into a form that the biology has created, and that’s the ammonia piece of it. So the ammonia extracts — I think this is what confuses a lot of people, in my opinion — it’s that when we think about an ‘extract’ process, we’re thinking about doing something, and we’re pushing it out. We’re squeezing stuff out and everything else. In the whole ammonia extract, we really have not changed any form other than what’s already there. We’ve just been able to prevent it from escaping where we don’t want it.
Recycling the Value of Manure
TOM: So, then, when you do ammonia extracts, you don’t take everything out of the manure. There’s still a solid form left, right?
JERRY: Oh, sure. Let’s think about this. Let’s go back to the field application of raw manure. If you put raw manure on there, and you don’t incorporate it into the soil, we probably lose 40 to 50% of the nitrogen in there. Still, we’ve got 40 to 50% of the nitrogen that’s not digested through the process that we still have available to us. Same thing in ammonia extracts. We’re still going to have a certain amount of nitrogen there. We’re not going to volatilize the P and K or anything else that’s there. We’re not going to volatilize the carbon dynamics. So we’ve basically put it into a process, that we’ve now taken a byproduct of digestion and captured it. We’ve not altered the form of it. But in a lot of cases, and to go back too, I’ll just use this example of anaerobic digestion that a lot of people do with manure. You look at anaerobic digestion. It’s that we put it under that system because what we want to do is we want to create the methane, and then we off-gas that methane, or we capture it for engines or whatever else that we want to do with it. But a lot of groups have found that distillate, that leftover product that’s going on, is a valuable source because we still have the nitrogen in it. We still have the P and K in it. We’ve altered the carbon form, so it’s a little bit more usable in that process. And so we’ve got a very valuable product that comes out of anaerobic digestion, but we always just focus on the methane capture. But in reality, the value may be in the residual material after all this process. Same thing in terms of composting.
TOM: So it seems to me what we’re trying to do is take a natural product of manure, and we’re trying to capture more of the value of it — to recycle more of the value — so that we can create more of that kind of closed-loop system of: we feed inputs to animals. It comes out as manure. We return as much of the nutrients as we can to the crops, to grow the crops and kind of keep that recycling going, right?
JERRY: Yep. Just think about it, and I think you stated it very well, Tom. It’s that in agriculture, when you really need to be looking, we’re going back to how we really founded agriculture as a closed-loop system and recapture that in saying, ‘We have a manure source. What can we do in terms of deriving the maximum value of that manure source back into crop production and move away from manure as a waste disposal problem as to a nutrient resource utilization problem?’
NOSB Ruling on Ammonia Extracts
TOM: Right. So part of what NOSB ruled on, as far as saying they didn’t think ammonia extracts were right for organic farming, I want to read an excerpt. I’m trying not to take it out of context. It’s not my point, but I’m interested in you replying to it. But in one of their writings, they say, ‘Organic pioneers demonstrated that ammonia fertilizers destroy the soil and found that production practices that exclude ammonia and other highly soluble fertilizer resulted in healthier soils and crops.’ And so it seems to me that’s one of the things that NOSB is looking at. So, from a soil scientist and somebody who has worked with these issues for a long time, can you speak to ammonia and how that interfaces with soil and soil health and crop health?
JERRY: Yeah, I think part of this goes back to — and here’s where I think we have the confusion in a lot of this — it’s that everybody looks at ammonia extracts in the same way they look at anhydrous ammonia. Looking at all this, you look at the ammonia extracts. They could have one of two forms in them. One is that you just captured the ammonia. You’re putting it back as a natural form, and it’s running in combination with manure and everything. So we’ve got that carbon-nitrogen readily available in this overall process, and there are cases in which people do see negative impacts of putting ammonia on the soil. But you can see as many cases in which putting ammonia on the soil doesn’t have any negative impacts. I think you’ve got to be very cautious in looking at the scientific literature in a lot of this. There’s a meta-analysis that was done looking across almost 60 studies in all of this, and they found that the biggest impact on changing soil was not the nutrient source but the tillage and the crop rotation system. And so you start looking at data like that, and you say, ‘How do we understand this very complex system that we have out there?’ Because if you look at organic production, what are we doing?
We’re looking at organic production. We’re using, basically, a lot of tillage at times, and that increased tillage may have more of an impact on oxidizing carbon back into the atmosphere because we see big CO2 releases. That is somewhat offset by putting that carbon back in with the manure and everything else. So I think there needs to be more pieces of this. But in a lot of cases, the effort has been in terms of, I think, focusing on very few studies that substantiate a point and not looking broadly across all the literature to say what’s going on in terms of these dynamics. We did a meta-analysis on dairy manure. We did a meta-analysis on swine manure, looking at its impact on production and environmental quality and things like this. Well, if you look across all the different literature that’s out there, the responses are pretty variable. In some cases, you see no water quality impacts. In other cases, you see water quality impacts. I think a lot of this, Tom, is that all it’s pointing out is that we need to really do a deep dive into these systems and really look at the literature much more carefully than I think what has been done in the NOSB report. One of my complaints about it is that those statements are made without a lot of large references to the whole body of literature but just a few pieces of the literature that’s out there.
TOM: Right, so they might be picking and choosing certain studies to support a certain view, which I think we all do at times. But as you said, if we’re going to make, I think, a change in what we’re doing, we need to look at all the science and kind of bring that out. But I think there are other advantages, Jerry, maybe in ammonia extracts. Sometimes, I know, when we apply manure — and you and I have talked about this a lot — that you don’t always get the flush of nitrogen that you want early in the spring. And so lots of studies show that if farmers think they’re not going to have enough nitrogen, what do they do? They tend to apply more. Applying more manure — so you make sure that you get that nitrogen at the critical times — then certainly leads to water quality problems. Does it not?
JERRY: Getting back to the ammonia piece of this, I think what’s important for us to understand is that everything that we talk about in terms of organic production is, ‘How do we utilize that manure resource that has been processed in a way in which we’ve captured that ammonia extract?’ It’s that we’re not putting that ammonia extract on at 200 pounds per acre like we would, say, anhydrous ammonia. We’re putting it on to supplement the manure that’s there, and I think this is a piece that got lost in a lot of people. It’s that we’re not talking about big rates. We’re talking about supplemental rates that, basically, put that ammonia extract into a pool, that we’ve just put it back in as part of the manure resource to make it much more available to that crop at times. So I think we’ve got to look at it from an entirely different perspective relative to organic production.
Applying Nitrogen at Critical Times
TOM: Right, so what I hear you saying, if I can paraphrase, is that through the extraction process of ammonia, we’re taking naturally-occurring nitrogen that is being off-gassed or released from the manure. We’re capturing it, and then we’re putting it back on organic crops at critical times at levels to support the manure because we’ve lost some of that nitrogen if we don’t capture it. And so all we’re kind of doing, again, is closing the loop, right? Of applying nitrogen at critical times at critical rates when the manure may not be releasing enough nitrogen to make available to the crop.
JERRY: Yeah, I think that a couple pieces that you’ve made in your statement, Tom, I think, are very, very important to this conversation. It’s that we have raw manure. We’ve captured that ammonia. It would normally be lost, and we’re putting it back on at critical times. They could be early in the season when we know we need a little nitrogen to get that plant off and going. It could be later in the season when that plant or that crop needs a little bit of extra nitrogen just to fill out the green, all these different pieces that are going on. We haven’t changed the overall nitrogen total that’s out there. We’ve just changed the form and the time in which we’re applying it, and I think that becomes a critical part of this discussion about this. It’s that we now have the capacity with ammonia extracts to improve our efficiency and improve our crop productivity along the way.
TOM: Right, and one of the things that has been brought up is that if we can make a more holistic use of nitrogen from manure in organic farming, it allows us some flexibility to do some different things. For instance, maybe instead of having just legume cover crops to produce nitrogen, maybe we can look at different mixtures of cover crops that actually can enhance soil quality. It kind of gives us more freedom to do, I think, more things in organic farming. Does it not?
JERRY: I think that what it does is it opens the door to a lot more innovativeness in agriculture, and you think about, ‘How can we utilize legumes to provide nitrogen?’ That’s one piece of this puzzle. How can you look at improving small grain production as part of sequences? All of these different things, and I think this really gets us to the point of saying, ‘How do we improve soil health as one endpoint? How do we improve the quality of our cash grain crop along the way? How do we improve the quality of all this?’ Because we know, as we improve soil health, that we improve the quality of that product, whether it be corn, grain or soybeans. Or wheat, canola, all these other crops that we might think about growing. We know that improving soil health benefits those, and so we need to stand back a little bit, in my opinion, and say, ‘What’s the best way to manage this to improve soil health?’ And if you look at that manure resource, one of the pieces that it has is carbon going back into the soil, and we know that we need to be adding carbon. But the other piece of this is that we get soil health from promoting biological activity within the soil, and we need to be feeding those. The manure does that. That’s one of the big values of this. How do we begin to look at this and basically utilize all of our natural resources? And manure is really kind of in that bucket of natural resources, in my opinion. How do we use it more effectively for production? But also, at the same time, as we improve our soil health, it’s that we’re going to reduce runoff, so we’re not going to see movement off of that. We’re also going to improve water quality because we’re not going to see that leaching through that profile. So we’re going to see improved environmental quality from all of this, and the other piece of this environmental quality is that we’ve put that ammonia back into a form that’s put into the soil. It’s not outgassing into the atmosphere, so we have environmental quality improvement from that standpoint.
Manure from Animal Feeding Operations
TOM: Yeah, so one of the other issues I hear against ammonia extracts is, typically, the manure originates from very large animal feeding operations, I think what you and I would call CAFO: confined animal feeding operations. And although I understand where this tends to run counter to some organic farmers, I think a lot of the products that are used in organic farming originate from very large animal feeding operations. I know that, in Iowa, a lot of organic crops get fertilized with chicken manure, and chicken manure doesn’t come from my dad’s 50-head flock, right? This comes from facilities that have a million, two million birds at it, and it’s being distributed on organic farming. Or else compost isn’t coming from my dad’s feedlot that has 50 head of cattle. It’s coming from very large feedlots, and so I think there’s some misnomer about. Just because it comes from a source of concentrated animals, I know that it fits into some of the themes of organic farming. But we still permit these products, compost raw manure from large animal feeding operations. Do you see a difference in ammonia extracts versus these other products?
JERRY: No. Manure’s manure in some cases. And ammonia extracts — and you think about the whole process — to capture ammonia off of that 50-chicken operation that your dad has is probably not scalable. Having cleaned out chicken houses with that 50-bird as a youth, I’m not sure we could have scaled that. We just had to put up with the ammonia that was in the chicken house. I think that here is the piece that we can look at in saying, ‘If we have that manure resource, and we think about putting it into a system that we can capture that ammonia, now we’ve got a manure resource that we can sell off and transport.’ But we’ve also got an ammonia source that’s large enough that we can do something viable with it, be able to put it back onto the land, supplement that manure, sell it off in different ways that may go back into organic production. So I think we need to stand back from the system and say, ‘How do we really look at managing this from a much different perspective than the way we are today?’ Instead of saying, ‘Well, if it only comes from this, it can’t work.’
I think, in agriculture, we need much more innovativeness. I’ve always told people that manure is one place that we need a lot more imagination about how we manage it. How do we utilize it as part of our agricultural system? Because we have manure available to us, and everybody complains about how many animals we have in Iowa. And they’re equivalent to thousands of millions of people with cities. To me, it’s a resource that we ought to be looking at and saying, ‘How do we really capture that value and put it back into an agricultural system that gets us to that closed loop and benefits?’ Because organic production continues to grow. Organic production continues to have a demand for manure as a resource. I think, as we begin to understand this, that there’ll be a demand for ammonia extracts in a lot of this because I think that people will begin to realize the value of being able to improve the whole nitrogen management sequence through that, and that’s what ammonia extracts begin to allow us to do.
Natural Ammonia Extracts
TOM: Right. So, going to maybe bring this to a finale, if you will, taking ammonia extracts does not create any new nitrogen source. It doesn’t disallow a farmer from using carbon. They still need to use a carbon source and to build the soil as a part of their organic farming. What we’re really doing is kind of taking, as you said, a process where we’re capturing an off-gas. We’re kind of rebottling it and allowing organic farmers to use it at the right time, at the right place, along with their manure resources to improve crop yields, to improve crop health, if you will.
JERRY: Yeah, I think, Tom, we’re not — and I think this is where the confusion is — it’s that as soon as you say ‘ammonia,’ everybody goes back in saying, ‘It’s the Haber-Bosch process where we take nitrogen out of the air, and we put a lot of energy into it to create anhydrous ammonia.’ That’s not what we’re talking about. Maybe we should put ‘natural ammonia extracts’ to alleviate some of this confusion because I think that, when people look at and think about ammonia extracts, they envision that big tanker with anhydrous sitting at the edge of the field. Well, that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about capturing the natural ammonia that’s coming off of a biological process. We haven’t created or destroyed energy. We haven’t created or destroyed any product. We’ve just captured it, and so it’s not in the atmosphere. And we’re now going to put it in a form in which it can benefit agriculture even more than what it does. I think we need to come to that realization of, ‘This is what we’re talking about.’ Because I think we’re confused and somewhat warped, in my opinion, about our whole discussion because of our vision of ammonia. But we had ammonia as a process from a biological system centuries since the beginning of time, before we ever had the Haber-Bosch process. So the Haber-Bosch process in creating ammonia is a synthetic form. What we’re talking about is a natural form that has been here since the beginning of time.
National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment
TOM: So, Jerry, talk a little bit about your time as the lab director for the National Lab of Ag and Environment, which we used to nicely call the Soil Tilth Lab, which I still really like that name. But maybe talk a little bit about your time there.
JERRY: Yeah, I have this long background. I spent eight years at UC Davis before, after my PhD, and then I spent six years in Lubbock, Texas in the High Plains. And in 1989, I was redirected back to the National Soil Tilth Lab to be the laboratory director and, basically, to build a science program. And as Tom stumbles over that name — the National Lab for Ag and the Environment — we changed that name in 2009. Not because people didn’t like Soil Tilth, but it didn’t really represent the full mission of the laboratory. As we built the lab over time, the real focus was on the impact of agriculture on the environment and the impact of the environment on agriculture, and so a lot of stakeholders really didn’t understand the whole complexity of the lab if we talked about Soil Tilth. They just think we focused on soil management. So that was a name change to basically communicate to stakeholders the broadness of our mission and the impact of our mission. So you think about that over time. I’m very proud of what we did in the National Soil Tilth Lab, or the National Lab for Ag and the Environment, because we generated a lot of information that really helped and helps agriculture as we go forward. We had a lot of water quality projects. Tom, we had a lot of interaction with you on, ‘How do we begin to design things on the landscape that have a positive impact?’ You look at all those different things. I look back at the 31 years that I spent at the lab. Everybody was surprised that I spent that long in one laboratory, but we really did try to have an impact. One of the big benefits of USDA, particularly in the Agricultural Research Service — and I keep reminding people of this — is that we’re in the business of problem solving.
JERRY: Taking a problem, figuring out how to solve it, apply it, work with producers to get that process implemented. Along the way, work with action agencies — NRCS, EPA, DOE — in terms of helping them understand where these improved practices could have a benefit, both from a production, as well as an environmental quality standpoint.
Getting It Right with Ammonia Extracts
TOM: So, Jerry, if you had to give guidance to the organic world on how we proceed on ammonia extracts, what things should we be thinking about? What things should we be looking about? If we were going to make sure we got this process right, of ammonia extracts in organic farming or out of organic farming, what are the steps you would recommend that we take? Because if there is a lot of emotion involved in this decision-making and maybe some misguided assumptions, what are the right processes to take to get it right?
JERRY: Okay. Yeah, that’s an interesting question, and I think it’s a very important one. And that is that, in the organic systems, I think it goes back to a little bit of what we discussed. How do we take and do demonstration trials with producers? You’ve got ammonia extracts that are coming in. You’ve got the process manure that’s there. How do you put that into a system, look at how we apply that ammonia extract to be able to benefit it and just do some simple on-farm demonstration trials across there? As much as you and I’ve been involved with, over time, of looking at this, I think that becomes part of it, to be able to demonstrate to people that, ‘Yeah, we haven’t changed the total amount of nitrogen that’s out there. We’ve just changed our ability to be able to apply it at different times and have the benefit.’ Look at the soil health benefit, look at the environmental quality benefit, look at the agronomic and profitability benefit. I think that becomes a part of this. The other one is that there’s a lot of discussion about taking ammonia extracts and letting people put on the manure but taking the ammonia extracts off and putting it on other operations that are not organic. And that’s perfectly fine.
You just have to put it on at different rates. So we’re talking about, in one case, supplementing it with a manure resource. You’re talking about, in the other case, of using it as the total nitrogen resource that’s out there. I think that both of those have capabilities in terms of being able to utilize this product, but I think part of it is really demonstrating that this is not causing the problems that people think it is. We really have very little scientific data on this process. We have scientific data on manure, but we don’t have the scientific data on the utilization of ammonia extracts as part of an organic system. Everything is supposition in all of this. Do we get a waiver from the NOSB to allow us to do this? I think that all of this comes back to good, solid science, and I think the organic producers are going to have to stand up and say, ‘We need to look at this from a different perspective and begin to do this.’ Because I do believe that the prohibition against ammonia extracts is a little bit shortsighted in how we’re really utilizing our natural resources that we have out there.
TOM: Well, Jerry, I appreciate you joining today and shedding some light on this. I know it’s a subject that’s going to get more attention in the future in the organic farming world. And we really appreciate your perspective and the deep dive into this, and thank you very much for your time.
JERRY: Oh, my pleasure. I think that we, in agriculture, really need to think imaginatively about how we utilize our resources but also think about it from, ‘What can we do best in terms of the environmental aspect, as well as the production aspect?’ So thank you, Tom.
TOM: All right. Thanks, Jerry.
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