Earth Day and Agriculture

No other industry uses the earth and relies on natural consistency as much as agriculture. Farmers require weather conditions that follow patterns year after year to grow their crops. They count on the soil to hold its nutrients to produce high yields. Farmers need fields to be in good condition to harvest, plant, chisel plow, and spread anhydrous or manure. Crop farmers aren’t the only ones affected by weather––livestock farmers can face extreme challenges when there is too much rain or snow, or in severe droughts or heat waves. The bottom line is this: farmers and ranchers rely heavily on the earth and the natural processes that help crops grow and supply food and water for their animals. The earth provides what farmers need to supply the world with food, clothing, and so much more.

Earth Day is on April 22, 2020, and in light of that, this blog post will highlight some of the ways that farmers are being stewards of the land they use and protecting the environment. Farmers are often ridiculed for the impact that agriculture has on the environment. To be fair, agriculture does have an impact on greenhouse gas emissions, like most industries. That is true. However, often the good things that farmers are doing to help protect our environment are overlooked, so that will be the focus of this blog post!

Cover Crops

A cover crop is a crop that is planted after a field is harvested. In Iowa, a farmer might grow corn in a field and plant a cover crop of cereal rye by using a high clearance seeder or by airplane in the early fall. These crops are not planted to make a great economic


Iowa Cover Crop

impact on the farmer’s bank account by growing and harvesting them, but rather to make a great impact on the environment and quality of the soil. Cover crops make the soil more absorptive, which allows for water to be soaked in the land instead of running off into streams. They also help with the runoff of nitrates and phosphorous. Nitrates feed plants, so they need to stick around in fields. Phosphorous is important for plants to perform essential functions like photosynthesis. In Iowa, the most common cover crops are cereal, radishes, oats, and wheat. Iowa farmers care about the land, and it shows, as the number of acres of cover crops planted has increased significantly in recent history. In 2017, Iowa farmers planted 1.5 million acres of cover crops! This information is from the Iowa Farm Bureau, and you can learn more about soil conservation from our previous blog post, Soil and Water Conservation Practices – What are they doing?


Livestock Health

It is no secret that cow eructations and flatulence (farts and burps) causes methane to be released into the air, which is a greenhouse gas, known for its negative impact on the atmosphere. However, there are a few things to think about that can help break down that problem. Farmers are now growing livestock much more efficiently than they did in the past. For example, we are now growing fewer cattle but producing more beef since 1980. This is a result of feeding cattle more nutritious feed and using selective breeding to grow higher producing cattle. (Introduction to Animal Science) There is also research being done on putting different fats like sunflower oil and seeds into cattle feed, which was found to produce less methane. Scientists have also been working on supplements and vaccines for cattle to help cut down on methane production. To read more about these studies, visit Health For Animals.

Windbreak Trees

Not only are farmers committed to helping the earth for their benefit, but they are also


Picture from Natural Resources Conservation Service

committed to making it more enjoyable for those around them. Windbreak trees are a row of trees that slow the wind. Windbreak trees are often seen near hog barns. They have been around for a long time, but their purpose remains the same. Stop the smell! This helps keep the neighbors happy, but there are other earth-preserving purposes behind the use of windbreak trees. One main reason is that windbreak trees save energy, which is an issue in our world today. Conserving energy is very important, and windbreak trees can help by saving 7-25% less fuel for heating, according to Iowa State University.


Technology in Farming

This is a broad topic, as technology has changed significantly over the past 100 years (you can read about it on our blog post, 5 Ways Technology Has Changed Farming), but one result is very obvious. Technology helps farmers do more with less. Using a GPS to plant or chisel plow now means using less fuel to do those jobs. Looking at soil composition in a field means that farmers can know what nutrients that soil needs to yield well, and can apply them in the correct amount, which can help with issues like runoff. Calculating a feed ration for cattle using technology means that they are fed a perfectly mixed ration, leading them to produce more efficiently. Pig barns are heated and cooled using technology, allowing the barn to use only as much energy as is needed.

This Earth Day, think about the people that use the earth to provide everyone with vital Pink Black Photo Brush National Kissing Day Social Media Graphicproducts. Farmers care about the earth, and they are taking measures to protect it. Earth Day may look a little different this year, but one way to celebrate is by taking time to learn about the earth and the people who use it, by listening to a podcast or reading a blog post! Happy Earth Day!



Nutrient Cycling in the Environment

general cycling

“The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” This quote by Franklin D. Roosevelt simply explains the importance of managing soil quality. This becomes extremely applicable to farmers who are trying to maximize crop production, which can be achieved by maximizing the productivity of their ground. Fields contain much more than just dirt. They’re a complex ecosystem that contains a large amount of diversity when it comes to chemical and biological composition. One major factor in soil’s productivity when related to crop production is the nutrients found in soil. Some nutrients come from organic materials that are naturally occurring, while others are added to the soils because they are deficient. This process becomes a bit complicated when talking about specific nutrient cycling. This post will showcase how nutrients move throughout the environment while shining a light on the importance of managing soil nutrients. 

How do nutrients cycle in the soil?

Nitrogen (N)

Nitrogen is a macronutrient required by all plants, and is especially correlated with high yields in corn and soybean production. But first here’s a little bit about the basics of nitrogen in a cropping system! 

  1. Nitrogen gas (N2) is abundant in the air, however it cannot be taken up by plants. The plant available forms of nitrogen is nitrate (NO3) and ammonium (NH4+). 
  2. Nitrate is mobile in the soil profile. Due to this molecule’s negative charge, it repels from negatively charged soil particles and is easily lost to leaching and soil runoff. 
  3. Plants use nitrogen to synthesize amino acids, proteins, and chlorophyll. Ammonium is the easier form of nitrogen to use because it requires less energy in the reduction process. 

This diagram helps to visualize each process in the nitrogen cycle. Photo from wikiwand.

Now that we understand the importance of nitrogen in crop fields, here’s how it cycles and moves around in the environment! Nin the atmosphere goes through ammonification to become NH4+, which occurs due to nitrogen-fixing bacteria found in the soil. Legume roots have a symbiotic relationship with these bacteria, which adds plant available N to a field. Once in the ammonium molecule, nitrifying bacteria changes NH4to nitrites (NO2) and then nitrates (NO3). From this point, the molecules can either be taken up by plants, processed back to N2 through denitrifying bacteria, or leached with water. If the soil’s natural amounts of nitrogen is insufficient for a specific crop, the producer can apply fertilizers to a field.  It’s important to remember that these processes are constantly changing the chemical makeup of a soil, and that severe weather events could deplete the soil of many plant-available forms of nitrogen. 

Phosphorus (P)

Phosphorus is another essential macronutrient that’s found in phospholipids, lipids, and the backbone of DNA.

  1. Crop grain contains a large amount of phytic acid, which is primarily comprised of phosphorus molecules. 
  2. Phosphate is the plant available for of phosphorus, and the two most common forms of P are HPO4-2 and H2PO4
P cycle

This diagram helps to depict and simplify the chemical changes that occur in the phosphorus cycle. Photo from soilmanagementindia.

Unlike nitrogen, phosphorus’s most abundant form is a solid found in the ground. Organic P is created over an extremely long period of time with plant residue, hummus, and microbial biomass. Organic P is turned into a plant usable form through mineralization, and the reverse reaction is called immobilization. Once phosphorus is available and held in solution it can become unavailable by reacting with clay and various mineral surfaces or by binding with cations such as calcium, iron, and aluminum. Phosphorus held in solution is susceptible to leaching, much like nitrogen is. It’s important to know that the main P inputs into ecosystems are derived from fertilizers and plant residue. 

Potassium (K)

Potassium is a macronutrient that’s required for protein and starch synthesis, acid neutralization, enzyme activation, as well as water regulation in plants. 

  1. Plant available potassium is K+. Some soils can contain a lot of potassium, but not in the cation form. 
  2. If a plant is deficient in potassium, it can exhibit stunting, necrosis, lodging, and an overall reduction in yield. 
K cycle.jpg

This photo showcases the major steps and processes in the potassium cycle. Photo from nutrien-eKonomics.

Potassium starts as a primary mineral such as mica. After years and years of weathering, it changes into a nonexchangeable form. K cations change between nonexchangeable and exchangeable molecules through release and fixation. Once K is in an exchangeable form, it changes into a plant available form through desorption. K in solution is able to be leached, but is much less susceptible than nitrates. In terms of mobility within the soil profile, potassium is immobile. This is because a large percentage of soil K is nonexchangeable, due to its location and attraction to soil minerals. The main inputs of potassium into systems is through fertilizer and plant residues. 

How are these cycles manageable? 

Since these cycles are constant and on-going, it’s crucial for producers to maintain a knowledge of the nutrient levels within their fields and which areas are the most susceptible to losing nutrients faster than others. One way to measure nutrients is to test the plant’s vegetative matter for chemical composition. While these results are helpful and accurate, it doesn’t necessarily provide information for the available forms within the soil. This is where soil testing comes into play! Soil tests can be used to qualitatively measure nutrient levels precisely, which helps to give producers recommendations on management practices in the future years. 

Hopefully this opened your eyes a little to the vast possibilities within soil science, as well as provided a better understanding of some prominent nutrients that cycle through ecosystems!


Explaining Sustainability to Students

Remember finding a quarter as a kid? That used to be huge for me when I was young! If I had a quarter, I could get not just one, but two gumballs from the local convenience store. If I walked a little out of my way, and ventured past the bakery, I could bring home an entire loaf of day-old-bread. A quarter doesn’t go as far today.

We are fortunate to live in a society of abundance. What we want and what we think we need is sometimes as simple as a click away. We expect our items to be at the grocery store when we want them. Phrases like “out-of-stock” frustrate us. The idea of having to ration our food or money is almost unfathomable. So how do we then teach our students about sustainable agriculture and how most resources are limited?

journey 2050 photo

Journey 2050 takes students on a virtual farm simulation. This helps students explore sustainable agriculture on a global level. Each section of the game play is paired with a lesson plan that teachers can walk students through to ensure they have a good grasp of the concepts. The program encourages students to make decisions and adjust them as they see their impact on society, the environment, and the economy at a local and global scale. The students learn about farmers across the globe to learn about climate, market, and other various differences worldwide.

As the student interacts with each family, they learn the role of best management practices in feeding the world, reducing environmental impacts and in improving social performance through greater access to education, medical care, and community infrastructure.

To help understand sustainability, imagine a wooden barrel, made equally with three parts; economy, society, and environment. If you can only fill the barrel as high as the lowest slat on the barrel. The lowest slat becomes the most important and the one that should be addressed or fixed. To increase your overall sustainability, you have to raise that one lowest slat of the barrel.

Sustainability is a combination of these three areas – economic, social, and environmental. Most people are familiar with environmental sustainability, which includes maintaining soil health, protecting wildlife habitats, ensuring clean water, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But none of those things are possible without ALSO being economically sustainable.

Being economically sustainable means farmers can generate profit and help pay for those things to help protect the environment. Being economically sustainable also means that jobs are created, incomes can be earned, and the community can support itself. But those things aren’t possible without also being socially sustainable.

learning about Sustainability

Middle school student evaluates the sustainability level of his virtural farm.

Being socially sustainable means people have food to eat to keep them healthy, that they are well educated about the issues, and that the community has infrastructure like roads, electricity, etc. to help make things work smoothly and efficiently. These three elements of sustainability closely rely on each other.

The Journey 2050 program helps students understand that in agriculture and elsewhere there are finite resources. If students run out of money, they won’t be able to plant their next field. They have to wait to harvest and next time possibly prioritize spending differently. Students have to understand how to manage finite water resources, nutrient resources, and money resources. They need to manage their time. Sometimes, time is up before the harvest can be completed. The resources the student has invested into a particular field, have now been lost. Disappointment can be a powerful motivator to help students be more aware of the time. Just like in real life, farmers have only a certain amount of time to harvest their crops too. Managing all of these elements efficiently can lead to a sustainable farming operation.


Seventh grade student applying the correct level of moisture to the field. Note the sustainability barrel in the lower left corner.

Students get really excited when working with the Journey 2050 program. They shout things like, “I just bought a wind turbine to produce my own energy sustainably!” And, “I just made $140,000 harvesting my corn”. One student even commented, “Did you know I bought a well that is going to save lives by providing safe drinking water?”

farmers 2050For those students that just can’t get enough, there is also an at-home version of the game that is available as a mobile app called Farmers 2050. Farmers 2050 applies many of the same concepts, but then takes them further by turning raw farm products into finished goods (apples to apple juice or apple pies). Then players can sell their goods to other people in their community and other people around the world. This really gives students an understanding of how global agriculture is and how we can all contribute to a more sustainable world.

Teaching students about sustainability has benefits beyond understanding about how to feed the world in the future. If conscious thought is given to using what we have now to the best of our ability and making sure we conserve resources for future generations, I believe we can help our children live more satisfied lives now.


Weather and Climate’s Affect on Agriculture

What’s the weather going to be like today? Do you know if it’s going to be really hot? Should I bring my umbrella? These are all day-to-day thoughts we have about the weather. The outdoor conditions greatly affect our lives, whether it be the outfits we wear, the commute to work, or off-the-clock recreational

To an agriculturist, the weather is the biggest factor when determining what work can be completed each day. Growing up in a family that farms row crops, the nightly weather report was just as coveted to watch as a popular prime-time television drama. In the short span of a few minutes, the local meteorologist gives a brief description of the weather, which affects the productivity of the farm. This variability makes it difficult to plan far in the future, especially since extended forecasts can be difficult to accurately predict. In this sense, farming becomes a gamble and mother nature is the one rolling the dice. Meteorologists have years of professional experience when analyzing charts and predicting future conditions based upon past events. Weather forecasting is an over-looked technology that all farmers use to manage their production systems.

How does weather affect crop growth?

We all know that crops need water to grow, so it’s crucial to be in a climate zone that experiences periodic rain events suitable for a specific plant. However, everything is good in moderation. The start of the growing season is very dependent upon when it rains and when it doesn’t. If there’s too much rain, then farmers cannot physically run equipment through a field without getting stuck. And if they plant right before a strong storm system with lots of moisture, it’s possible to drown out the seeds before they are able to germinate.

soil thermometer

Soil thermometer, image from qcsupply.

This window of time is typically long enough for most producers to accomplish all of their planting, however water isn’t the only limiting factor. If the temperatures aren’t warm enough, the seeds won’t start to imbibe water or respire. When talking about corn and soybeans, the soil temperature should be at 50°F and rising to induce germination. This ground temperature is measured at four inches below the soil surface, and can be done with a specialized thermometer.

Once farmers have seed in the ground, the next hurdle is ensuring the plants receive an adequate amount of water. How much is perfect? Well that’s dependent upon both the species of plants and the particular varieties being grown. There is a lot of research being done to make corn have a higher drought tolerance, which could provide a larger geographical area for maize to be efficiently produced.

If the growing season is ideal for plant growth, the next hurdle to jump is harvest. A field may produce a high yield, but if the harvest conditions are sub-par this will lead to a loss in total production. If the field is too wet, equipment can become stuck in the mud. Some crops such as vegetables are harvested at a high moisture content, which contrasts from a crop like soybeans which must be harvested at a low moisture content. All in all, weather conditions are always a major threat to the agriculture industry.

Are weather and climate the same?

No. Weather and climate both refer to atmospheric conditions but have two completely different meanings. Weather is defined as the events happening each day within the atmosphere. This can change in a minute, couple of hours, or take days. By this definition a hurricane, cold front, or electrical storm can all fall under the realm of weather. But how is this different from climate? Climate is used to describe weather patterns over a much longer period of time. This essentially averages out each individual event and can be used to further categorize parts of the globe. Additionally, climate is used to make generalizations about future weather events. If you’ve ever wondered why different crops are grown in different regions of the United States, and by extension around the world, it’s because they fall into different climate zones! The Koppen-Geiger climate classification system is an excellent visual when learning about climates.

climate map

Image from Koppen-Geiger.

The first major category of climates is defined by temperature. This is split into five areas: equatorial, arid, warm temperate, snow, and polar. The second classification level is determined by precipitation amounts. This varies from the driest desert to an area frequented by monsoons. The third level becomes increasingly specific with temperature and maximums/minimums throughout the year. If you look at where Iowa falls on this map, it’s right around a border between Dfa and Cfa zones. By definition this means the Dfa area will receive snow, full humidity, and arid weather patterns, whereas Cfa will experience hot, full humidity, and warm temperate weather. The simpler way of saying this is frost won’t reach into a C zone. This is why crops with longer growing seasons, such as cotton and tobacco, are unable to be efficiently grown in northern states like Iowa or Minnesota. This also shows California’s advantage to growing many warm temperate fruit and vegetable crops. Hopefully this gave a little insight to why Iowa excels at growing specific crops, and broadens your view on the affects of weather around the world.US map.png

If you’re trying to incorporate this into a lesson, here’s a few resources!

Iowa Ag Today Issue 4 Agriculture in Society
Agriculture Across the USA
Where Does It Come From?


Soil and Water Conservation Practices – What are They Doing?

Agricultural run-off has been a big talking point in recent years. Many people know bits and pieces of the conversation, but the scope of the issue can be a bit complicated. There are many factors and smaller issues that need attention. So, what is the deal with run-off?

As you may know, Iowa is under national pressure to reduce the amount of nutrients washing off of our land and into the rivers, and ultimately into the Gulf of Mexico. The main issue at the Gulf is hypoxia, which basically means there are too many of specific kinds of nutrients, which promotes algae growth, which in turn chokes out other organisms like fish. Clearly this is not ideal.

The main nutrient that gets the press is nitrogen. Nitrates in the water has been one of the bigger issues people talk about. The main concerns are removing nitrates from drinking water (primarily because of the blue baby syndrome that was a larger problem in the 1950s), issues of environmental stability, and even cost of wasted nutrients on the farm associated with nutrient loss from the field.

The other nutrient we are now paying attention to is phosphorus. This one isn’t quite as popular to talk about in the public space, but it impacts aquatic ecosystems similarly to nitrogen. They both support the growth of algae, sometimes to the point of using up all of the oxygen in the water and killing off native fish.

Nitrogen and phosphorus (along with potassium) are two of the three main macronutrients that plants need to grow. Nitrogen tends to be the nutrient that is applied most to Iowa farm fields, because of how important it is to crop growth. These are naturally occurring elements in the soil and play a vital role in life on Earth.

However, we’ve come to this issue. Aquatic ecosystems are being negatively impacted by these nutrients. Farmers pay to apply these nutrients to their crops and don’t want to lose their investment. How can we reduce those nutrient loads in our waterways and keep nutrients and soil where they belong?

The good news is those questions are being asked, and many programs are underway. The more difficult news is that there is not a one-size-fits-all answer either for fields or for the nutrients themselves.

Let’s back up a little bit and talk about how these nutrients interact with the soil and water. Soil particles are made up of sheets of molecules that when bonded together create an overall negative charge. This works out pretty well because most nutrients have a positive charge in their plant-available form. This means that most nutrients bond with the soil and stay available to the plants living in that soil. Phosphorus is one of these nutrients.

But then we get to nitrogen. It sometimes is in a form with a positive charge (NH4+), but it doesn’t really like to stay like that forever. It gets broken down or may volatilize into a different form. It could be lost into the atmosphere, or it could become NO3-, which is nitrate. When nitrogen changes into its nitrate form, it is no longer attracted to the negatively charged soil and ends up leaching its way through the soil profile along with ground water.

Since nitrogen moves with ground water, the primary way it gets around is through tile lines. Field tile is commonly used in Iowa to help keep excess water from the field. If soil is too waterlogged, the crops may struggle. Thus, Iowa farmers have been tiling their fields for decades to give the water a quick and easy way to escape the field.


Iowa Learning Farms display highlighting differences between nitrogen and phosphorus loss from a field and how tile lines play a part.

Both of these nutrients cost money to apply. They are important for crop growth. The soil that can hold them is also valuable. Farmers don’t want them to leave their field partially because they don’t want to lose that value, and also because of the negative impacts too much of them can have on other ecosystems. But because these two things come into the waterways in different ways – phosphorus comes into the water with soil that has eroded, and nitrogen through the water itself – they have to be managed in different ways.

So what are some ideas?

There are some practices that can be built or installed to help modify the landscape or the way the elements interact with it. These can cost real money, but in some cases, government programs or even corporate incentive programs can help fund their start up. These can be largely grouped as permanent structures

One cool new idea is saturated buffers. This system uses both buffer strips and tile lines. Buffer strips are areas of natural plants parallel to ditches and waterways left fallow to help filter runoff. Conventional tile systems are installed 3-4 feet deep to catch and take extra water from the field and into a near ditch or waterway. The outlets of these tile lines have conventionally been placed directly into a ditch or waterway uninhibited. However, the idea with a saturated buffer is that if you place the tile line parallel to the ditch or waterway, the soil and plant growth in the buffer strip will filter the soil particles and nutrients in the water before it reaches the waterway. The Agricultural Research Service claims this system filters an average of 42% of the nitrate load from the water.

The saturated buffer idea is similar to the idea of bioreactors. Bioreactors also help filter nutrients from tile line outlets, but with artificially created biological processes. Essentially a pit is filled with organic, carbon-rich materials, like woodchips, where microscopic life can flourish. These microorganisms help break down and filter nitrates from the water introduced to the system. This is a slightly older technology than saturated buffers, but is costlier to implement and will need redone roughly every 15 years.

Buffer strips and bioreactors are considered “edge of field” practices. This means that they don’t need to take up area in a field, but instead use the less productive or less safe land to farm near a water boundary. Though it still may be a hard sell to pull that land out of production, it is argued that those areas likely aren’t making the farmer much money, and proper water management may help make other areas better. Since these practices help filter ground water before it reaches the stream, they are some promising pieces in removing excess nitrates.

Terraces are another way farmers can make changes to the land to slow water runoff. You may have seen pictures of farms in other parts of the world where terraces are cut like stairsteps into a large hill so that the crops can be grown on flat land. Here in Iowa, we use a different kind of terrace that essentially builds up a smaller hill on a broad hill to slow water running off the slope. When the water runoff is slowed, soil particles and nutrients can have more time to settle out in the grassed front and back-slopes of the terrace. For more info on terraces, check out our previous blog post here, Clean Water Iowa, or the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Avoca Terraces

Terraces placed on the slope protect the soil from erosion in Avoca, Iowa.

Grassed drainageways or grassed waterways are a common sight to see around the hills of Iowa. These are natural waterways that farmers leave in native grasses to slow water flow, intercept soil runoff (to decrease P loss), and hopefully the plant life will also absorb excess nutrients in the water (to decrease N loss). If not left in a grassed waterway, these areas of the field would be susceptible to rill and gully erosion.

There are also cropping practices that can impact soil and water conservation. These can be opted into or out of any given season.

Another very cool idea is cover crops. We’ve written previous blogs about cover crops, but in a nutshell, cover crops are plants grown in a farmer’s field during the off-season (fall to spring) to keep the soil covered and protected during a time it would usually be left bare. Cover crops protect the soil surface from wind and rain, the roots help improve soil structure, they add organic material that makes soil healthier, hold nutrients near the soil surface, help suppress weed growth, and do lots of other cool things. Because cover crops help use nutrients and protect the soil, they can help with both nitrogen and phosphorus loss.


Soybeans sprouting through a terminated rye cover crop on a strip-tilled farm near Algona, IA.

Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers broke the land using moldboard plows year after year. Eventually we realized that even though tillage can help prevent soil compaction and help with weed control, it has a negative impact on soil structure and makes soil more susceptible to erosion. Because of this, some farmers swung the pendulum to the opposite side of the spectrum and went no-till. This means they never till the soil on their fields. Instead, they are more dependent on herbicide weed control, and use crop rotations and cover crops to help mitigate soil compaction. When the soil is not tilled, the structure becomes stronger, and previous years’ crop roots and stems help protect the soil. This helps prevent soil from washing off the field, thus preventing phosphorus loss.


This is a field that has been strip-tilled. Strip tillage is a form of conservation tillage where only part of the field is tilled.

If we think of no-till and moldboard plowing as the two far swings of the pendulum in terms of tillage, likely the middle of the road or slightly more toward no-till would be conservation tillage. This is the idea that a field can benefit from tillage for compaction or weed control issues, but can also benefit from increased soil structure and added organic material from less tillage. These practices vary greatly, but likely include less of the topsoil being broken up.

Contour farming is a way to plant a field so that the rows follow around the hills. This means that when the water runs down the hill, it would run perpendicular into the rows instead of parallel between the rows. This should slow the flow of water, giving soil time to settle out of the water before it continues down the hill.

There are many options available for farmers and landowners in the area of soil and water conservation. More research is being done every day for the best and newest ways to decrease risk, decrease cost, and maximize benefit. Because of the nature of these practices (particularly permanent structures and cover crops) is that it costs real money up front to earn intrinsic value later (i.e.: will not earn them a paycheck), it can be difficult to implement new things. However, farmers recognize the good that these things do, and are interested in new cost-share and grant opportunities that can help them do better with what they have.

What do you think the next big idea will be? Maybe you’ll be right!


Macronutrients in Crop Production

elements in the environment

When growing crops of any type, it’s important to understand the required inputs in order to receive the desired yields. One of these inputs, arguably the most important and critical one, revolves around nutrient management. All plants have these requirements, whether it be crops grown for biofuels, fruit production, or landscape ornamentals. Each plant needs various amounts of nutrients, which can be used to classify them (by quantity) into macro or micro nutrients. It’s important to remember that each one is vital for plant growth, simply required in different doses. As a sidenote – this blog is going to be mainly focused upon corn production, but all of these elements are necessary for any plant you’re trying to grow! First I have a couple questions to spark your curiosity about nutrients in plants…    

  • A plant can be deficient in oxygen, how is that possible?
  • Plants need calcium just like humans do. If it doesn’t go towards bone and teeth strength, then what’s its purpose?


Let’s start with the big three: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. If you’re reading a fertilizer label, they don’t typically advertise for these elements. So, where do plants take them from? Why are they necessary for plant life? Should I be worried that my garden isn’t receiving enough hydrogen? The simple answer is that no one should be concerned about their plants being nutrient deficient in C, H, or O, as long as the plants are surrounded by air!

Carbon (C) – Thanks to many fields of science, we know that carbon is the base for life on Earth! This means that if plants are going to continue to be alive, they must obtain and maintain C. In more direct terms, plants produce and uses chains of carbon with other atoms called carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids. But what happens if the plant is unable to take in carbon? This would be a very unfavorable scenario for the plant, especially since carbon is essential to photosynthesis. More specifically, without carbon (in the carbon dioxide form) the Calvin cycle wouldn’t occur. This means there’s no G3P, which helps make glucose, and without energy the plant cannot continue to live.

calvin cycle.png

This depicts the Calvin cycle in photosynthesis. Diagram from Khan Academy

Hydrogen (H) – Whenever I think of elemental hydrogen, I don’t normally think of it as a nutrient. I don’t directly eat anything that is marketed as “high in hydrogen”, so how could a plant use it? To start off with, every living organism on Earth needs water (H₂O) to live. Plants use water to obtain hydrogen atoms when splitting H₂O molecules through the light reaction of photosynthesis. The hydrogen ion is then used to create NADPH, which is a crucial ingredient in the Calvin cycle. If a plant is missing this chemical compound, then photosynthesis would cease and the plant would die.

z scheme.png

This shows the light-dependent reactions in photosynthesis, commonly referred to as the z scheme. Image from LibreTexts

Oxygen (O) – Wait a minute – oxygen is a product of photosynthesis, why would a plant need to take in oxygen too? In order to break down food through aerobic respiration, there must be oxygen present. Yes that’s right, plants respire just like humans do! Cells within leaves and stems obtain oxygen atoms that are a product of photosynthesis. However, cells found in areas that aren’t photosynthetically active must find oxygen elsewhere. To solve this issue, roots are able to take in O₂ from the air between soil particles. If the ground is saturated to capacity, then the roots cannot take up oxygen in the gas state. If the area is flooded for longer than 72 hours, it’s likely the plant will run out of oxygen and not recover.


The chemical equation for photosynthesis.

Nitrogen (N) – This is a much more commonly discussed nutrient, especially since it has a huge correlation to high yields in corn production. If you were to walk into a farmer’s field, you would be surrounded by nitrogen in many forms! N₂ is a gas found in the air, whereas NO₃⁻, NH₄⁺, and NH₃ are compounds found in the soil. But if nitrogen is found in the air, why can’t corn absorb it like carbon or oxygen? This is because corn can only take up nitrogen when it’s in a nitrate form, which can be found in solutions and attached to soil particles! When taking a closer look at NO₃⁻, it’s more prone to being lost to the environment due to its negative charge. Soil naturally has a negative charge, which means that a nitrate is more likely to move elsewhere in the environment than wait around to be absorbed by a plant. This is why many agriculturists use anhydrous  ammonia as a N fertilizer, because it contains NH₃ and not NO₃⁻. Overtime soil microorganisms will convert ammonia to a plant available nitrate. Why is nitrogen so important in corn physiology? N is essential to grain fill and development. This means that if the plant is deficient in nitrogen, the kernels and ear won’t fill to their genetic potential. A common symptom of N deficiency is a yellowing midrib on a lower leaf.

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Nitrogen deficiency in corn. Photo from SDSU Extension

Phosphorus (P) – This is another very important macronutrient! In a similar respect to nitrogen, plants are unable to absorb and utilize the elemental form of P. This creates a problem in fields, because P is most commonly found in a plant unavailable form! Luckily, roots have a symbiotic relationship with Mycorrhizal fungi which are able to turn P into a more usable form. Corn can easily uptake phosphates, and the most common compounds are H₂PO₄⁻ and HPO₄²⁻. Since phosphates have negative charges, they are more prone to leaving the soil than the elemental form (similar to nitrates). This is why synthetic fertilizers that contain significant amounts of phosphorus are delivered in a P₂O₅ compound. Why is phosphorus so important in corn physiology? P is directly correlated to crop maturity, yields, and overall plant growth. More specifically phosphorus is a huge makeup of sugar phosphates, which directly affects ATP. Energy transfer with ATP is crucial, due to it’s role in both RNA and DNA. A lack in P will affect the overall efficiency of any plant. Phosphorus deficiency in corn appears in older leaves and starts as a purple hue. An increase in severity will turn leaf margins brown.

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Phosphorus deficiency in corn. Image from Channel.

Potassium (K) – When applying synthetic fertilizers, it’s common to see potassium in the K₂O form. However, this form is not immediately available to plants. Plants can only take up K+ when it’s in a solution. This form differs from the available compounds of N and P, since potassium is a cationWhy is potassium so important in corn physiology? A deficiency in K can have a multitude of negative affects upon the plant. This could be seen as an increase in susceptibility to drought, temperature stressors, and pests. Agronomists refer to K as “the quality nutrient”, meaning there’s a direct connection to traits like seed vigor, size, color, and shape. To be more specific, potassium helps build cellulose, increase protein content, maintain turgor, and move sugars and starches throughout the plant’s vascular system. K deficiency symptoms start as a yellowing of leaf margins on older leaves, and an increase in severity turns the pale color to a brown necrosis.

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Potassium deficiency in corn. Photo from Thompsons.

Secondary Macronutrients

There are three elements that fall under this category, as they’re needed in higher quantities than micronutrients but lesser amounts than N, P, and K.

Calcium (Ca) – Calcium deficiencies are most common in sandy and/or acidic soils, since the Ca ions can be leached through the soil profile. Similarly to potassium, Ca²⁺ can only be imbibed by plants when in a soil solution. Why is calcium so important in corn physiology? Ca holds a vital role in the creation of cell walls and membranes. Calcium deficiency symptoms are visible in new growth, so in corn this would be around the growing point. It typically appears as a yellowing color, slowed growth, and leaf tips sticking together.

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Calcium deficiency in corn. Image from Crop Nutrition.

Magnesium (Mg) – Without Mg, a plant would not be able to photosynthesize. This element is a sizable component within chlorophyll molecules, which is 100% necessary for capturing the sunlight’s energy! Additionally, Mg serves as a phosphorus carrier. Simply put –  if there’s not enough Magnesium then the plant would be unable to uptake P, even if it was available in the soil! Mg²⁺ is the plant available form, and can be heavily affected by the pH and sandiness of soils. Mg deficiencies are first seen in older and lower leaves, starting as a purple interveinal discoloration.

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Magnesium deficiency in corn. Photo from The Mosaic Company.

Sulfur (S) – The last, but certainly not least, macronutrient can be absorbed both through the roots and stomata openings. In the environment, sulfur is commonly found in the air as SO₂ and within soil solutions as SO₄²⁻. Unlike the previous secondary macronutrients, this one is taken up as an anion as opposed to a cation. Due to the negative charge on a sulfate molecule, it is mobile in the ground (just like nitrate or phosphate) and can be leached through the soil profile. Why is sulfur so important in corn physiology? Without adequate S, some amino acids and proteins would be unable to synthesize. Sulfur also has a connection to winter hardiness, which is a major trait in certain crops. S deficiency in corn appears as a general yellowing of younger leaves, starting between veins but widening to encompass the entire leaf with increasing severity.


Sulfur deficiency in corn. Image from Successful Farming.

This is merely a glimpse into some of the chemical factors and management systems that a row crop grower oversees each and every year. If you liked this blog or learned something new from it, let us know! Or maybe if you’d like to see a similar breakdown of micronutrients too? Either way I love writing about agronomic science and can’t wait to share another blog with you all!



Agriculture Products Differ with Geography: Iowa vs. Panama

-Traveling leaves you speechless

-Adventures are the best-the journeyBefore participating in a study abroad, I had heard all of these sayings before: “Traveling leaves you speechless and turns you into a storyteller!” “Adventures are the best way to learn!” “The journey is the destination!” They sounded exciting, thrilling, and had an immense call to action for me. This, accompanied with my desire to learn more about agriculture on an international level, really pushed me to apply for a travel course. Fortunately, I was accepted into a two-week program that would provide exposure to Panama’s agriculture products and international business model. I toured both family and corporation owned farms, specializing in animal production, meat processing, and crop management. It’s second nature for me to compare all of these processes to those in the U.S., and specifically Iowa while analyzing their efficiency, safety, and overall productivity given the difference in climate and soils. After returning to the states, I had an entirely new view upon international agriculture and hope to broaden your perspectives on the agriculture industry!

Does Panama produce corn like Iowa?

It’s a known fact that Iowa is great at growing and selling corn. So, it’s a given that this is the first question I asked myself. The short answer is, that while Panama does grow corn, it’s nothing compared to the yield and quality of Iowa’s maize. To obtain some reliable numbers, I used the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations website and the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service website. In 2017, Panama produced just over 5 billion bushels of corn and Iowa produced 2.6 billion bushels. At first glance this might seem as though Panama is clearly ahead of Iowa, however, this doesn’t take into account the yield of this crop. Panama’s yield averaged 32.5 bushels per acre, compared to Iowa’s whopping 202 bu/ac. To put this huge difference of yields into perspective, if Panama could grow corn as efficiently as Iowa then their yields would be 6.2 times higher, roughly making their total production reach 31.8 million bushels.

So now that we know where Panama stands on corn production, it’s a good idea to determine what’s accounting for this huge difference from their potential yields. This is the first question I asked upon meeting a Panamanian maize grower. He said his corn normally averages 130 bu/ac, which is significantly higher than the national average. He planted corn on land with higher slopes because maize is more suitable for it than some of his other cash crops. Management practices vary a lot from the U.S., the two biggest differences being that they plant non-GMO crops and use minimal chemical application. Most farmers we encountered were certified organic, and make minimal to no post-emergence applications. One downside is the lack of protection against pest damage. Even though this management practice yields much lower than alternatives, the farm is able to stay financially stable thanks to the organic premium received upon selling the crop. Another key factor affecting their corn yields is knowing that the soil has a high percentage of clay. This could be beneficial during droughts but can be detrimental during tropical storms with high rainfall accumulation. I believe that if the soils were more of a loam and had more water drainage qualities, this would help boost the yield and production of maize in this country. It’s also important to realize that because of Panama’s tropical climate, this area is much more suitable for effectively producing other crops.


This Panamanian corn is hand planted at 29,000 plants/ac and yields 130 bu/ac.


This ear of corn grown in the southern peninsula of Panama only filled about 2/3 of the entire ear.




Agroforestry – what is it?

Agroforestry is an uncommon term in the Midwest, especially in Iowa, but is more well-known in countries like Panama. Simply put: agroforestry is the incorporation of trees and shrub-like plants into a crop and/or animal production system, usually reaping benefits from economic and environmental aspects. The most impressionable agroforestry production I visited was a cacao plantation grown and managed by a Panamanian indigenous tribe. On the side of a steep hill underneath the canopy of a forest, there were crops grown for consumption, fiber materials, and various other plants that fall under the realm of subsistence farming. An interesting fact about the cacao tree is that it actually grows best in a partially to fully shaded area! This, and the need for a tropical climate, are the two main reasons why cacao cannot be commercially produced in Iowa. The Ngobe Bugle tribe’s lifestyle and family traditions revolve around the cacao tree. The chocolate plant not only provides the main source of income for the community, but it also holds together their culture and traditions. The trees normally produce three crops throughout the year, and the entire first crop is used for tribal activities and festivities. The remaining harvest is sold internationally through an organic cooperative. Since the Ngobe Bugle people consider themselves to be one with the land, they choose not to apply pesticides, herbicides, or artificial fertilizers to their crop. There is a downside to this production method, which is the susceptibility and infestation of pests and diseases.

Cacao trees start the reproductive growth phase with many flowers emerging from its branches. These flowers can only be pollinated by tiny insects and flies because they are simply too small for bees or other pollinators to pollinate. Of these flowers, about 60% are killed by a virus. This virus could be minimized and prevented with modern technology and chemicals, however, this would conflict with and disrupt the Ngobe Bugle’s lifestyle. Of the remaining 40% of flowers that are pollinated and start producing a pod, only 20% successfully make it to harvest. The rest are lost to crickets, fungi, worms, and severe weather events. This means that the cacao trees are only yielding at 20% of their potential. 

While I’m looking at this from an agronomist’s perspective and classifying it as a major problem, the indigenous tribe sees no issues with their production system. They make just enough money to break even with the organic premium they receive when selling with the cooperative. At first, this ideology was difficult for me to comprehend. In all areas of agriculture production in the U.S., the producers and growers are striving to improve in the upcoming year’s production and quality. If yield remains stagnant or decreases, that’s typically reason for producers to reevaluate some of their management choices. If there’s ever a new tactic for improvement or an increase in yield, there’s a high likelihood the producer is willing to try it. This idea of becoming more efficient and productive is not present in the Ngobe Bugle people, since they’re subsistence farmers. They only grow what they need, and have no reason to produce excess. This is just another difference and aspect of the global agriculture industry that many never have the chance to see.

It’s easy to be caught up with learning more about the agriculture industry in Iowa, and the Midwest in general, but it’s important to take a step back and look at it with a wider scope. It’s quite interesting to see and be able to visualize how the sole state of Iowa is able to help produce, and compete in yields, on a global scale. One must also realize why Iowa is an ideal location for corn production, and on the other hand appreciate why some crops are better grown in varying areas. So I encourage you to go out and learn about a foreign agriculture product that you’re interested in and/or are confused with how it’s grown! Our goal of becoming more agriculturally literate doesn’t stop with corn and livestock production in Iowa, it fits into a much larger scheme of things!


Locally Grown

It’s January and I just bought some locally grown lettuce. The grocer specifically labeled it as locally grown with a fancy sign making it look like it was better lettuce than the other stuff. So I saved the world! I just bought local which is surely better….right?

Well, not necessarily. It may come as a surprise, but if you are buying or eating locally grown food, it may not be food grown in your community. There is no set determination for the definition of locally grown. Locally grown products may have been grown at a local farm just up the road, in the same county as your farmers market, or possibly even within the same state. However, in other cases, locally grown produce may have come from 250, 400, or even 1,000 miles away from the point of purchase.

The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 defines locally grown as “being transported less than 400 miles within the state in which it is produced.” But retailers, states, farmer’s markets, and other organizations may use their own definition.

By the Food, Conservation and Energy Act definition,  if I was a farmer in Council Bluffs, Iowa (western side of the state) I could sell my produce in Bettendorf, Iowa (eastern side of the state) which is 310 miles away. Similarly, if I was a farmer in Hornbrook, California (extreme north) I could sell my produce in San Diego, California and call it local. But that is more than 800 miles distance to the south! Seattle, Washington which is two states away and north is closer to Hornbrook at only 480 miles away – but then my produce couldn’t be called local.

Specialization and Trade

There are a couple of theories behind local food. 1) It is better for our health, 2) it is better for the environment, and 3) it is better for the local economy. Let’s look at the environmental argument first.

“Economists have long recognized the welfare gains from specialization and trade. The case for specialization is perhaps nowhere stronger than in agriculture, where the costs of production depend on natural resource endowments, such as temperature, rainfall, and sunlight, as well as soil quality, pest infestations, and land costs. Different crops demand different conditions and vary in their resilience to shocks. So California, with mild winters, warm summers, and fertile soils produces all U.S.-grown almonds and 80 percent of U.S. strawberries and grapes. Idaho, on the other hand, produces 30 percent of the country’s russet potatoes because warm days and cool nights during the season, combined with rich volcanic soils, make for ideal growing conditions.” – Steve Sexton.

This is called comparative advantage. Ignoring the concept and the advantage means it will require more inputs to grow the same amount of food. This means more land will be used. More chemicals will be used. More carbon emissions will be spewed out into the atmosphere. There are a number of different models floating around on the internet, but they suggest that if we were to transition to a purely local production system in agriculture it would take between 25 percent and 50 percent more land to produce the same amount of food we produce today.

The other environmental concern is carbon emissions from transportation of food. But estimates suggest that only 11 percent of carbon emissions come from transportation. The bulk of carbon emissions in the food system – 83 percent – come from production. So while it would be nice to reduce the carbon emissions from transportation, we can make a bigger impact by improving technology on the farm and reduce emissions on the production side of the system.

Healthy Options

Local food is often associated with organically produced which is often associated with being the healthier option. But is it? This one is a bit more complicated to unravel. Local food is defined (yes, but earlier I said it wasn’t defined….stick with me here) by the distance it travels from where it was produced to where it was sold. By definition, that means it has nothing to do with the quality of the food or whether or not it is healthier.

What can have a larger impact on the health benefits of the food is what time of year it is grown and produced. For example, a tomato that is grown in the summer months with adequate rain and nutrients will likely develop more natural sugars, be packed with vitamins and minerals, and be very ‘healthy.’ By contrast, a hot-house tomato that is grown in the winter months with less daylight will not be as healthful. It won’t have had the same opportunity to develop those nutrients. BUT, the difference is small and really negligible. The most important part of a healthy diet is eating lots of variety of whole foods. Eat fruits and vegetables. Eat meat. Drink milk. Worry less about where the food came from and more about portion size and diversity of diet.

Many local food producers are small-scale farmers and many of those raise produce organically. There is an assumption that organically grown produce is raised without chemicals, but this isn’t necessarily true. Organic growers can still use pesticides. So if your goal is to reduce exposure to chemicals then buying local isn’t a sure thing. And buying organic isn’t a sure thing.

IMG_2105.JPGConsider this: nearly all apples contain detectable levels of pesticides. But, the presence of a chemical doesn’t equate to the presence of a risk. Fewer than 0.1% of apples tested have pesticide residue levels higher than the governmental limit. Even though most apples tested have detectable chemical residue, most were far below the permissible level. So the benefits of eating the apple and getting good nutrients outweigh the risk of chemical exposure.

A Boon to the Local Economy

While the premise of buying locally produced food falls short on the environmental factors and the health factors, it shines when considering the local economy. Studies have shown that small farms are more likely to earn a positive net farm income by selling locally. Other studies indicate there are nearly 32 jobs created for every $1 million in revenue generated by farms who are directly marketing their produce. This is compared to only 10.5 jobs per $1 million with large farms.

In our modern society, the number of farmers continues to decrease. As farms get larger and more efficient, the number of people it takes to grow food declines. Currently, less than 2% of the U.S. population is directly involved in food production. But, local food can help increase the number of farmers. Local food sales receipts are upwards of $4.8 billion. These direct-to-consumer sales are great, but the real answer might lie in connecting small and mid-sized farms to large-scale food buyers.

nfsn-social-link-share.pngLocal producers can also benefit through programs like Farm to School. This national program is used in more than 42,000 of the roughly 100,000 school districts across the country. The premise is to connect local producers to local school districts providing the ingredients they need to produce up to 30.5 million school lunches every day. This is a great way of helping source local produce. There is an educational element to it so kids can learn about where their food comes from. But the primary benefit is giving priority to local producers.

Local food can also come in the form of CSAs or Community Supported Agriculture. This can be a fun way of getting to know your local farmers. All goods are locally produced and usually seasonally grown. It can be fun to get a box of lettuce and carrots one month and a box of turnips the next month! Anyone know any good recipes for turnips?!!!?

Ultimately, food choices are hard. Locally produced food is a nice idea. But it doesn’t always make sense. It can be a factor when you consider what produce to buy, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you consider. And don’t confuse local with organic or other gimmicky descriptors. Just eat a well-balanced diet. Not too much, not too little.


How Do They Work? Seed Vaults

When I was working at a seed company several years ago, the company agreed to support the new Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located in Norway. Maybe it was because I had never heard about seed vaults before or because it was in Norway where my ancestors used to farm but I was immediately fascinated with it. It could have also been that it was one more Norwegian item to lord over my husband (he has Swedish ancestors — don’t get him started about the lack of Swedish representation at DisneyWorld, even pre-Elsa).

If you’re like me, you might be curious how seed vaults work but first why do we need seed vaults?

Seed Vaults Help Protect the Crops – Today and into Tomorrow
The world population is projected to reach 9.7 billion people by 2050. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations by that point, agriculture will need to produce almost 50 percent more food, feed and biofuel than it did in 2012 to meet demand. Today, more than 108 million people in the world suffer from severe food insecurity (hunger). If we have that much hunger today, what will happen when climate change and other disasters continue to affect food supplies?

If you eat food, seeds are important to you. Seed vaults are one way the agriculture community can protect crop diversity for future use. It’s easiest to compare them to a bank deposit box. Like you would with other valuables in your bank deposit box, seeds are deposited into a secure storage vault by seed companies, governments and other organizations. These organizations can withdraw them at a future date when they’re needed. The variety of a food that goes extinct today may contain the genetic link to secure that crop in the future. According to The Crop Trust, since the 1900s more than 90 percent of fruit and vegetable varieties have been lost. Today’s U.S. apple farmers know all too well the downsides of not protecting their varieties. In the 1800s, U.S. apple farmers were growing 7,100 named varieties of apples. Today, 6,800 of those are extinct.

Why is it such a bad thing to lose varieties? Did you know today more than 60 percent of the world’s calories come from only three crops: wheat, rice and maize (corn)?


What happens if we lose one of those crops to extinction? What happens to our food supply? Food insecurity around the world would likely increase significantly. We need to protect all our food sources, not just the best ones. If we only try to protect the best ones, we may lose the varieties that save us from devastation from bugs, diseases or climate change further down the road. Loss of biodiversity is considered one of today’s most serious environmental concerns by the Food and Agriculture Organization. If current trends continue, as many as half of all plant species could face extinction. Preserving crop diversity remains the best way to help agriculture adapt to the demands we face. How can we preserve the technology? Every growing season, farmers maintain our current varieties in their fields, while scientists use seed banks to help protect them for future needs.

Among the more than 1,700 seed vaults across the globe, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is the most well-known. Its mission is to operate as a backup for all the other seed banks.

Inside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault
Cary Fowler, U.S. agriculturist and former executive director of The Crop Trust is credited with the vision for the seed vault. Opened in 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Trust is located on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago about 800 miles from the North Pole.

The actual vault is at the site of an old coal mine and is located nearly 400 feet inside the mountain.

svalbard-seed-vault-diagram1 from crop trust

Due to its remote location, lack of tectonic activity and availability of permafrost, the Svalbard site was considered an ideal spot. The site is also far enough above sea level that even if all the world’s ice caps melt the bank will remain secure.

The Svalbard Seed Vault is essentially a backup for world agriculture. It maintains protection for other seed vaults in case of equipment or financial failures or even destruction due to war. The seed vaults in Iraq and Afghanistan were lost due to war. Those crops are gone and will never be seen again.

The Svalbard Seed Vault is a unique partnership between Norway and other organizations around the world. The Norwegian government agreed to construct the vault and maintain it. Norway owns the vault but the storage of seeds is free to users thanks to the Global Crop Diversity Trust, Norwegian government and other financial supporters. Seed companies and organizations deposit seeds into the vault and maintain ownership of the seeds. When seeds are deposited, the seed vault operators don’t even open the seed packages. Only the depositor can open the packages.

Interesting Facts about the Svalbard Seed Vault (Source: Crop Trust)

  • The vault cost $9 million U.S. dollars to construct.
  • 13,000 years of agriculture history are contained in the vault.
  • The vault opens twice a year for deposits.
  • There are currently more than 960,000 different varieties housed within the vault and storage room for 4.5 million samples.
  • Each seed sample has 500 seeds in the package.
  • Seeds are stored at -18ºC.
  • No genetically modified organisms (GMO) seeds can be contained in the Svalbard Seed Vault. The vault is owned and operated by the Norwegian government, which does not allow GMO seeds in the country.
  • There are no drug-related crops stored in the vault. The vault also does not contain crops such as bananas as they have no viable seeds.
  • Only the seed depositor can open their seed packages.
  • Syrians were the first to withdraw from the seed vault due to military action that damaged its seed repository. Seeds harvested from the withdrawn deposit were grown then sent back to Svalbard to replenish the supply withdrawn.

Seed Vaults in Iowa
Many of Iowa’s seed companies maintain their own storage of the seeds they’ve developed over time. But, Iowa is also known for the Seed Savers Exchange organization located in Decorah, Iowa. Diane Ott Whealy co-founded Seed Savers Exchange as a way to honor her Bavarian great-grandparents and ensure the varieties they brought with them when they immigrated to America were available to her children in the future.

The non-profit organization began in 1975 by people saving seeds from their gardens and sharing them locally with each other. The efforts further expanded across the country and the world as the organization grew. One of the reasons it’s been so successful is that families who have raised crops over generations want to know their heritage would be cared for as well as their seeds.

Today, the Seed Savers Exchange organization is the nation’s largest nongovernmental seed bank of its kind. It protects more than 20,000 different varieties of heirloom and open-pollinated plants. The seeds are available to members through its catalog and website to grow and regenerate each year. The organization also grows the varieties on its Heritage Farm each year to ensure they’re healthy for future generations.

While I’m no gardener or scientist creating new varieties, I appreciate the efforts of these individuals and organizations to protect our crop diversity for future generations. If we don’t have crop diversity, nothing else matters.


Additional Resources
Seed Banks Around the World
FAQ About the Svalbard Global Seed Trust Vault
Rare Look Inside the Doomsday Seed Vault video
Inside the Vault video
A Trip to the Svalbard Seed Vault with Cary Fowler
TEDTalk: One Seed at a Time, Protecting the Future of Food
The Crop Trust – Securing Our Food, Forever

Life of an Agronomist

My neighborhood has a fairly diverse set of families with all different types of occupations. Next to me are two doctors, across the street a few human resource and information technology professionals, construction company managers, veterinarians, further down a pharmacist and so on. What you wouldn’t think to find is a seed company agronomist living in my urban neighborhood. There are benefits of having an agronomist in your local neighborhood – help with garden pests, chatting about the current state of agriculture and getting to share in his family’s harvest. One recent night, he brought over fresh picked sweet corn. Now, I admit I usually get my sweet corn from the local Hy-Vee or farmer’s stand. The sweet corn from Hy-Vee or the local farmer’s stand are likely looked over a little more closely since they’re being sold and not given away. In other words, I’ve never found a bug in the bunch.

The neighborhood agronomist grows his sweet corn on the family’s farm. When he warned me there might be a few corn earworms I did my best to control my expression. Anyone who knows me likely knew what was being thought in my head — ‘eww, nature.’ While I might have grown up on an acreage with horses, we didn’t have crops. I chose walking/riding beans over detasseling for one very specific reason – bugs. At least with walking/riding beans the plants were smaller to walk through, or even better yet – ride over versus the tall plants while detasseling.

When I was shucking the corn, I found a few ‘picnic bugs’ and thought I was free and clear until I noticed some brown at the tip of the last two sweet corn ears. And then I saw it…yep, two corn earworms snacking on my tasty sweet corn.


Encountering the corn earworm reminded me of how the agronomist’s day must go day in and day out, and how different his job is to mine. If you’re not familiar with agronomy, you might be asking yourself what exactly does an agronomist do?

If you like working outside and collaborating with others, field agronomy might be for you. Agronomists are scientists who work with plants, soil and the environment to help their customers use the best technology to grow the most efficient crops, while caring for the land they use. Their main goal is to help farmers conserve their natural resources – plant, soils, water and animals while also producing a bountiful, profitable crop.

Role of an Agronomist
From managing tough weeds to evolving weather conditions, agriculture is an ever-changing environment. Agronomists work in partnership with their farmer customers to help grow crop in a sustainable, profitable way.

Agronomist responsibilities (a short list):

  • Help farmers with seed selection and choosing the technologies best suited to their land.
  • Keep up-to-date on the latest seed innovations, chemical and crop nutrient products and best practices.
  • Help with weed identification and make herbicide recommendations.
  • Connect farmers to new technologies that can improve yield and profitability on a field level. Examples include precision ag, mobile apps, soil sensors and drones.
  • Help with nutrient management using soil sampling and making nutrient and fertilizer recommendations.
  • Know a lot about different crops, fertility practices and work side-by-side with the grower to make sure they’re growing the best crop they can.

field_research1_NAITC library

Day in the Life of an Agronomist
Depending on the time of year, the day in the life of an agronomist varies widely.

During the spring and summer months, agronomists begin their day talking to area teams of account managers and sales representatives to see if anything happened over night that needs attention. They also travel into their territory to plot locations to make observations and then close the day discussing products or conducting a training activity with their team or a customer.

Over the fall (after harvest) and winter months, most of the time is spent in the classroom training account managers and sales representatives. Topics typically include new products that will be launched in the next growing season, discussing best management practices and planning experimental plots that will be planted in the spring. They also meet with customers to finalize product decisions for the next growing season and gather feedback on products from the previous year.

Think Agronomists are Just in the Midwest?
Agronomists in Iowa and throughout the Midwest primarily work with soybean, corn, wheat and a few other specialty crop farmers. But, across the United States and around the globe agronomists are helping farmers develop sustainable and profitable crops such as apples, coffee, wine and sugarcane. Even country clubs employ agronomists to help manage course turf grasses to create an ideal golf environment. The title of these professionals may vary but at the heart of their job is agronomy.

Careers in Agronomy
The world population is projected to reach 9.7 billion by the year 2050, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. With an ever-growing demand for food, fuel and fiber worldwide, opportunities in agriculture will only increase.

University agriculture programs across the United States are experiencing a shortage in the number of graduates coming through their programs. Most university agriculture programs report a 90 to nearly 100 percent job placement rate of graduates upon graduation. In other words, while other industry professions are struggling to find jobs that’s not the case for agriculture students. And, most agriculture programs require no prior experience in agriculture.

The next crop of agriculture professionals will help farmers battle tougher weeds, handle increasingly unpredictable weather and grow more crops to meet an increasing worldwide demand for food, fuel and fiber.

Interested in agronomy? Here are a few other resources with additional information.