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Crop acres and fertilizer applications

Crop acres and fertilizer applications

U of G researchers share findings on changes in Ontario fertilizer applications since 1971

Nicholas Bannon and Alfons Weersink
Department of Food, Agriculture and Resource Economics
University of Guelph

Fertilizer use in agriculture is under increasing scrutiny largely due to environmental concerns associated with emissions into the air (nitrous oxide) and the water (nitrates and phosphates). 

Algae blooms in Lake Erie are an example of the effects of excess nutrient runoff and the concerns have sparked the creation of initiatives such as the 4R nutrient management program in Ontario.

In this article, we explore if a change has occurred in the area of Ontario cropland receiving fertilizer applications since 1971.

The amount of cropland in Ontario has remained relatively constant at around 9 million acres for the last two decades. (See Figure 1.) The province even had a slight increase in this acreage between 1991 and 2001. 

Figure 1: Ontario cropland acreage receiving inorganic fertilizer and manure applications, 1991 to 2016

Farmers applied inorganic fertilizer on just over 6.3 million acres of Ontario cropland, Statistics Canada’s 2016 Census of Agriculture revealed. (See the green bars in Figure 1.) That figure represents 70 per cent of Ontario cropland and this percentage is just slightly higher than the average share of cropland on which farmers applied fertilizer over the last 35 years. The share has been consistent since the increase from 35 per cent to 70 per cent between 1971 and 1981 that coincided with the increase in Ontario corn acreage.

In addition to inorganic or commercial fertilizer, nutrient leaching and runoff can be associated with the application of organic fertilizer or manure. In 1991, Statistics Canada began collecting data on the area of cropland on which farmers applied manure.

In 2016, producers spread manure on 1.84 million acres of Ontario cropland. (See Figure 1.) This acreage represented 20 per cent of the total cropland and this share has been relatively constant since 1991.

Thus, the share of cropland receiving fertilizer in the form of either inorganic and organic fertilizer has remained relatively constant since 1991.

What does this information mean in terms of nutrient run-off and water pollution?

Since the total area of application of fertilizer and manure has not changed significantly for over 25 years, one could predict that the amount of nutrient run-off occurring today should be like what was observed 25 years ago. However, with growing concern around the water pollution in Ontario’s Great Lakes, it does not appear that this situation is the case.

Although the total acreage with fertilizer application has stayed constant province-wide, individual counties have experienced more significant changes in the acreage with fertilizer applications. These shifts could be contributing factors in the increase in water contamination in the Great Lakes.

Figure 2 maps the changes in fertilizer applications by county since 1991. The largest increases are in regions where corn and soybean production have expanded. Increases in cropland area receiving fertilizer application also occurred in all counties bordering Lake Huron and Lake Erie, which could explain why large algae blooms have become more frequent.

Figure 2: Percentage change in Ontario cropland acreage receiving fertilizer by county, 1991 to 2016

In summary, two-thirds of Ontario cropland receives inorganic fertilizer and one-fifth receives manure. These figures were relatively constant over the last 25 years, as was the cropland acreage.

Note that the acreage on which farmers applied fertilizer does not reflect the amount of fertilizer applied. Rather, the numbers in the first figure simply reflect the increase in total cropland acreage with fertilizer applications, regardless of application rates.

Estimating fertilizer usage amounts can be difficult, as relevant data is limited. We will explore this topic in future articles and blogs. It will be interesting to see whether changes in fertilizer rates have followed a similar pattern as the changes in the acreage of fertilizer application, and whether initiatives such as the 4Rs have caused any changes in the industry.

National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff, Des Moines, Iowa, U.S. photo

Trending Video

Seed to Plate Revolution: How Chefs Empower Plant Breeders to Create

Video: Seed to Plate Revolution: How Chefs Empower Plant Breeders to Create

BY: Alex Martin

It doesn’t matter what your job is — an artist, a scientist, a plant breeder… We all pull creativity and inspiration from somewhere. While there might be vastly different inspiration points between an artist and a scientist, plant breeding seems to be a happy medium between the two. Though there’s numerous pieces of data, genes and traits driving a plant variety forward, the drive, creativity and need for a variety doesn’t always have to be scientific — inspiration can come from eating, too.

Especially in the world of vegetable breeding, breeders take inspiration from tasting, cooking and eating their varieties. Sometimes, you need a professional to give you feedback.

Both Irwin Goldman and Michael Mazourek have luck asking professional tasters and eaters — chefs — for feedback during their breeding work. While the two may approach the feedback in different ways, the ultimate goal is the same: creating a new variety that people enjoy the sight of and the taste of.

“[Feedback from chefs] wasn’t systematically brought into our breeding programs until the last decade,” Goldman, professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says, noting that this feedback was thanks in part to Mazourek and Dan Barber, co-founders of Row Seven Seeds, as well as Steve Jones from Washington State University. “Prior to the influence of Dan and Steve, we interacted with chefs in an ad hoc way.”

Goldman says they would ask chefs about the kind of things they were interested in, and whether they were willing to taste some varieties they were breeding. After chefs were brought a little more intentionally to the program, that dialogue shifted and became more open ended.

“We’re actually having an ongoing, regular dialogue with people who spend their life working on preparing dishes and preparing food for others, who have great insight into the culinary properties of food,” he says. “While I can measure something in the lab, it’s also going to be important for me to have a regular interaction with a chef who is used to working with that product in the kitchen.”

For Mazourek, while the lab is getting similar feedback, he looks to get contributions from chefs who consider something other than the flavor most people expect.

As an example, while working with tromboncino squash — a variety growers and chefs were excited to use — Dan Barber suggested checking and cooking the squash variety more like meat by brining and searing it to create a unique flavor. That experiment led to Mazourek checking all his squash varieties in a similar fashion.

“Though moments like those, they showed me what they were doing — and I wanted to know how I could do this better to work in the field and bring them back something,” he says. “I’m really looking forward to understanding what they’re doing for the presentation. What techniques are they applying, and what did they look for in the cultivars that met those? Just getting insight there to make me a better plant breeder — once they share their insight, then I’m going out into my field with a new vision.”

It's important to remember humans don’t just eat with their mouths. They also eat with their eyes.

“Sometimes the focus on flavor is becoming secondary to the way the plant looks — from the colors to the pigments — the consumer preference could be driven more visually rather than the flavor,” Goldman says.

Mazourek says that’s why, in addition to tasting every variety, he works to understand all the different components of a variety. Chefs aren’t just using them for taste — they’re working to use the plant in a new and unique way.

While there’s a lot in the background to working with chefs, Mazourek and Goldman are excited to see the relationship between plant breeders and chefs evolve in the future.

“Today, we’re doing more of what I’d call participatory plant breeding,” Goldman says. “Some of that is with chefs and other culinary professionals, but we’re also doing that in a lot of other ways with farmers. I believe that’s only going to be good for humanity, and that humanity is going to benefit.”

“Chefs are interested in new ingredients. They’re interested in the narratives, the backgrounds, the community and how they can support their local community,” Mazourek says. “There’s a great opportunity where chefs can be this fantastic ally and diversify what we have in the flavors to make local regions unique.”

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