Nitrogen management through a social science lens: Reflections from an LTER researcher

By Adam Reimer, PhD, Post Doc and LTER researcher.  W.K. Kellogg Biological Station, Michigan State University

For decades, researchers at the Kellogg Biological StationLong Term Ecological Research site have explored the impacts of nitrogen management in agricultural landscapes on our air, water, and climate. While KBS LTER scientists have learned a great deal from this long-term, site-based research, we need to extend results of this work to a wider audience, and beyond the borders of KBS. As part of this effort, a group of investigators from MSU have been working on the Social-Ecological Analysis of Nitrogen in Upper Midwest Agricultural Systems project. Nitrogen is a critical input in modern cropping systems, especially corn production systems so prevalent in the Midwest. Despite its important role in supporting crop production, nitrogen applied to but not taken up by the crop can contribute to water pollution through nitrate leaching, and climate change through the production of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.

Primarily, this project seeks to understand the social dimension of how farmers across the Midwest are managing nitrogen. We have spent the past three years conducting surveys and in depth conversations with farmers to gather information about their nitrogen management practices. We have also frequently interacted with outreach professionals, including private sector crop advisors, fertilizer dealers, and university Extension educators, to learn more broadly about common nitrogen management practices in the region. We have learned important lessons about the complexities of farmer decision making, chief among them the prevalence and importance of advisors in farmer decision-making. Nitrogen management is a complicated aspect of overall farm management, full of uncertainties associated with the weather, soil, and crop system. Many farmers rely heavily on recommendations from advisors from the private and public sectors when making decisions. This advice ranges from recommendations on the amount of nitrogen to apply, to assistance with new and developing technologies to help them more efficiently manage nitrogen.

After all the data collection and farmer interviews, we wanted to extend the conversation around nitrogen management to a broader audience. In early June 2016, we held the first Nitrogen Roundtable at KBS that brought together Extension educators, researchers, and private sector advisors from across the Midwest. This Roundtable served not only as an opportunity for us to share our research findings with people who work closely with farmers, but also for us to learn more about their perspectives on nitrogen management. The two day event provided an opportunity for extended discussion and dialogue around important issues related to nitrogen management, including the constraints and opportunities in farmer decision making.

MSU's Nitrogen Roundtable

Dr. Reimer discussing the findings of his research.

The group that gathered at the Roundtable represented a wide range of roles and experiences relating to farmer decision making. We had Extension educators from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Michigan; researchers from both academia and conservation agencies; Certified Crop Advisors from across the upper Midwest, some self-employed as independent consultants, others employed by agricultural retailers; and fertilizer dealers, who provided their perspectives on recent developments in product markets. As a group we discussed the primary challenges in managing nitrogen efficiently at field, farm, and regional scales; how to increase use of decision support tools to improve nitrogen efficiency; and important considerations and participants who should be included in future discussions.

MSU's Nitrogen Roundtable

Extension agents and crop advisors brainstorming a list of challenges that they face as farmer advisors working with producers on nitrogen use.

The group identified trends that cut across the region, as well as important differences in climate, soil, and market conditions between states that influence nitrogen management. Perhaps the most important lesson we learned from the meeting concerned the complexity and difficulty that farmers face when making nitrogen management decisions within modern farming systems. While farmers make the final decision regarding their nitrogen management, information from numerous sources, the market, and policy considerations all add to the inherent biophysical complexities (especially weather and soil variation) faced. Decisions to improve overall nitrogen management efficiency will require the involvement and collaboration of a wide range of stakeholders that extend beyond those who attended the Roundtable. These include seed and input manufacturers, retailers, environmental groups, policymakers, and (most importantly) farmers. As data collection and modeling efforts improve, sharing data about nitrogen management will become increasingly important. This will require open and honest collaboration among private and public sector stakeholders. Especially important may be access to decision support tools that can help farmers with their daily, seasonal, and annual decisions. In addition, efforts to better understand and improve nitrogen efficiency must include better integration of both natural and social data.

Nitrogen management, like many aspects of farming, involves a deep connection between natural and social systems. Efforts to improve efficiency will require a greater understanding of the complex interactions of soil, climate, and management decisions. As we continue our research, we will continue to collaborate with a diverse group of farmers and farm advisors, sharing our research results from KBS and learning from their experiences in the field. We hope that these collaborations will continue to build connections between researchers and practitioners to improve the use of this important crop nutrient.

MSU's Nitrogen Roundtable

Nitrogen Roundtable participants learning how nitrous oxide emissions are captured at KBS on the LTER.