One farmer's uphill battle to provide cheaper, more environmentally friendly alternative to fertilizer
Skepticism persists about whether crops can grow well without traditional fertilizers
As the agriculture industry faces soaring costs for fertilizers and climate-related pressure to reduce the use of such products, some farmers are looking at different ways to feed their crops.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine caused prices to spike amid a global shortage of fertilizer this past spring, which put many farmers in a tough spot: pay sky-high prices for traditional fertilizers or consider different options.
Some resorted to the conventional method of spreading manure on fields (which caused a shortage of animal poop in some parts of North America), while others considered switching to a variety of substitutes to provide nutrients to their crops.
One of those alternatives is a technology designed by Gary Lewis, a southern Alberta farmer who is growing mustard, wheat and yellow peas on his 1,600-hectares of land this summer. To grow those crops, he isn't using traditional fertilizer. In fact, he hasn't used any for the last 20 years.
Instead, he relies on the technology he's developed called Bio-Agtive, which collects exhaust from his tractors and injects the material back into the ground as a carbon-based biofertilizer.
Lewis says interest in Bio-Agtive jumped this year, likely driven by dollars and cents. With the drought last year, some farmers struggled to pay their bills, then, he said, when fertilizer prices spiked this spring, many family farms again felt the financial squeeze.
"If there's no need to change, you won't change," he said, noting that he hopes research being conducted into the effectiveness of Bio-Agtive will spur more people to adopt the technology.
Tinkering with tractors and plant science
The fourth-generation farmer and father of five says he's come close to financial ruin in years when his crops and soil have failed.
A few decades ago he began to question the amount of fertilizer he was using and became intrigued with the idea of taking the carbon exhaust from the tractor's diesel engine and feeding it into the soil.
Lewis, who is also an auto mechanic, started tinkering in his workshop. His wife, Barb, said he became obsessed with plant science.
"He was reading science books all about plant nutrition," she said. "Then I would see him make plants in egg cartons, putting seeds and dropping emissions from the exhaust of vehicles and watch them grow."
After plenty of trial and error, Lewis built his own carbon capture and sequestration unit. Hoses connect his tractor's diesel exhaust to a system that cools the gases. The filtered carbon water is spread along with the seeds or piped through his irrigation system. He says he saw almost immediate improvements in his crops and soil.
"C02 is the building blocks of life. It made sense that I could take the emissions from that tractor and put it through the air delivery system with the seed and just try it. Why not? This is experimenting," he said.
The spike in fuel and fertilizer costs are the main reason why this year's crop is considered the most expensive in Canadian history.
Other startups pitching alternatives to traditional fertilizers say they, too, are experiencing increased demand. Some of the companies, including Pivot Bio, Anuvia and Kula Bio, are pushing plant-based fertilizer products and the use of microbes as a cheaper and more environmentally-friendly option.
The federal government announced a 30 per cent reduction target for fertilizer emissions in late 2020 and recently wrapped up a months-long consultation process on that climate goal.
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An industry-led report released earlier this month suggests Canada's farmers can likely only achieve half of the federal government's target by increasing the efficiency and precision of traditional fertilizer use.
Since 1990, the agriculture sector has generated approximately 10 per cent of Canada's total greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to the federal government.
One of the main challenges faced by alternative fertilizer startups is convincing farmers to try it. Many farmers are skeptical and hesitant to risk their livelihoods on a new product.
Over the years, Lewis patented his technology, travelled to farm shows and talked to producers.
A few hundred farmers have used the Bio-Agtive system, which mounts on the front of tractors and sells for between $65,000-$95,000. Australian Mick Dennis is one of them.
"It didn't take long to figure out it was a good concept and works very well in harmony with nature," Dennis said during a phone interview, noting that he's seen an increase in the root development of his crops and the organic matter in the soil since he started using the system.
"That's not just Bio-Agtive, it's Bio-Agtive and good farming practices."
While Lewis's system has found a level of success with some farmers, there still isn't enough scientific proof to determine if it produces a lower cost and environmentally-friendlier alternative to commercial fertilizer while still producing similar crop sizes. At least not yet.
More than a decade ago, Jill Clapperton investigated whether Bio-Agtive could be detrimental to the soil as part of her job as a research scientist with Agriculture Canada. It was not harmful, she said.
Whether Bio-Agtive was better than a commercial fertilizer is another story. Clapperton found there were slight differences between a field without fertilizer versus those treated with the emissions from Lewis's tractor.
"But the [crop yields] were significantly lower than when you use fertilizer," she said.
However, in subsequent research she took part in as a consultant with Montana State University-Northern in 2012, seeds treated with Lewis's system were found to have fewer soil-borne fungal diseases.
"In fact, the soot and the trace minerals from the exhaust that were coating the seed and that bit of heat were actually acting as a seed treatment," said Clapperton.
At the time, Bio-Agtive was in its infancy and Lewis said yield result differences compared with fertilizer were insignificant. The system has evolved and the technology is now in its sixth generation.
Questions about whether the soil retains the Bio-Agtive emissions, and for how long, or how fields without fertilizer compare to those treated with Bio-Agtive emissions remain.
"I'm immediately skeptical because I'm a scientist," says Angela Bedard-Haughn, dean of the College of Agriculture and Bio Resources at the University of Saskatchewan.
"I think there's room in agriculture for all scales of practice, but," she said, "bottom line, the science has to be there."
Conceptually, the idea behind Bio-Agtive makes sense, according to Daniel Alessi, professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Alberta, although more research is required to know how effective Bio-Agtive is compared to commercial fertilizers.
"If you add carbon to soil in the form of carbon nanotubes and other black carbon — that is, very fine particles and diesel exhaust — it does induce the colonization of microbes that themselves can then release nutrients from minerals in the soil," he said, noting this could improve the soil health and, ultimately, crop production.
More research is currently underway as scientists at Olds College in Alberta measure crop yields and collect tissue and soil samples for laboratory analysis. A final report on results from the Bio-Agtive system is expected from the college in early 2023.
While he anticipates those findings, Lewis continues meeting with farmers, building new Bio-Agtive systems and selling them to people willing to try something new to escape the high price of traditional fertilizers.