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Triple play feat of reducing nutrient pollution

Ag retailer, farmers, and technology create a powerful defense in controlling nutrient pollution in Ohio.

Making three outs as one continuous play is rare in baseball. Known as the triple play, this feat has been accomplished only 727* times in Major League Baseball since 1876, according to Baseball Almanac. 

Luckey Farmers Inc., a member-owned cooperative in northwest Ohio, has developed its own triple play to reduce nutrients entering Lake Erie that fuel algal growth.

A source of drinking water for millions, Lake Erie is also home to more than half the fish in the Great Lakes, and it’s a draw for tourists. Through the years, toxic algal blooms have plagued the lake’s health. Researchers believe the main cause is excess amounts of phosphorus, found in fertilizers and sewage, that flow into the lake from farm fields and wastewater treatment plants. 

Focused on improving water quality long term, the ag community launched the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program in March 2014. Originating in the Western Lake Erie Basin of Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio, the voluntary initiative encourages nutrient service providers to adopt proven best practices through the 4Rs – using the right nutrient source at the right rate and right time in the right place. 

Contaminated drinking water in August 2014, which affected over 400,000 northwest Ohio residents for more than two days, brought renewed attention to the ongoing problem in Lake Erie.

“Like humans, plants need nutrients to grow. Whatever form it comes in, fertilizer plays an essential role in that,” says Jennifer Martin, director of strategic communications, The Fertilizer Institute. “Two out of every five people owe their lives to the higher crop yields modern fertilizer has made possible. It’s important to fertilize crops, but we must do it in a sustainable way. Innovation is a key part of that story.”

Going Digital

In the wake of the water crisis, Luckey Farmers Inc. began a digital transformation that would help its members both meet the 4R requirements and better utilize technology. Since clean, comprehensive data is the foundation in meeting nutrient management mandates, the cooperative began to make changes from within. 

Its first move – convert its paper-based processes to a digital workflow, which starts with planning. Today, every machine, operator, and salesperson at the cooperative is equipped with an iPad that includes Agworld, a farm management software.

“The software creates a plan to work off of, so we know exactly what needs to be done throughout the growing season,” says Andrew Gladden, IT manager, Luckey Farmers. 

From sampling to prescription generation and recommendations, Agworld also offers a seamless precision workflow. “It has made our processes much more efficient, especially soil sampling,” he says.

It once took seven to 14 days from the time a sample was pulled until a variable-rate application was made. A combination of software, bar-coded bags for paperless lab submission, and integration with soil labs has cut it to three to five days.

“Because weather can be an issue in getting a variable-rate application done, that prescription has to be ready to go as quickly as possible,” Gladden says. “Once soil results are returned from the lab, they flow back through Agworld where a prescription is automatically generated, then converted to a work order for application.”

The samples also led the cooperative to its next technology partner. As part of the 4R requirements, a soil sample must be conducted at least once every four years from an area no larger than 25 acres. To be considered variable rate, two samples must be taken in that 25 acres.

“While we’d improved our workflow processes and the way fertilizer was applied to a crop, we were lacking in replenishing soil nutrients like phosphorus after soybeans were harvested,” Gladden says. “We had good soil samples, but in order to write that prescription, we also needed the yield data off of that field, which we were missing.”

Adding Farmobile to its suite of offerings in 2017, Luckey Farmers now had access to real-time yield data. Installed on some of its growers’ machines as well as the cooperative’s entire fleet, the Farmobile PUC is a simple, plug-in device that automatically streams agronomic and machine data from most brands of farm equipment and commercial applicators. All the layered data, from planting through harvest, is then converted into a uniform data set.

“With access to real-time data, the grower doesn’t have to stop during harvest, so we can download the information,” Gladden says. “Since we started this service two years ago, our acres have grown every year.”

“This methodology is taking data from a yield map and marrying it with an actual prescription that comes out of Agworld. We then back that up with a map of what was actually applied, so there is a record,” says Bradford Warner, vice president of business development – sustainability at Farmobile. “Not only will we show a reduction in runoff and an improvement in nutrient use efficiency inside a field, but we’re also going to do so in a way that, economically, is a virtuous cycle for everyone involved.”

“Whether it’s an ag retailer or a farmer, our job is to digitally document and become the system of record for a field,” says Jason Tatge, cofounder and CEO, Farmobile. “Because we have layers of data, we can start to unlock some of the analysis and manage on a sub-acre level.”

Ahead of the Curve

When Gladden joined the co-op in 2014, variable-rate technology (VRT) was used on about 4,000 acres. “We were way behind the curve. Today, we’re at 45,320 acres, or about 70% of the ground we cover,” he says.

The number of acres of grid soil samples also increased. “We went from 20,000 acres in 2019 to almost 56,000 last year. It all starts with soil sampling. This increases our ability to variable rate more acres,” Gladden says.

Nationally, adoption rates for variable-rate fertilizer range from 15% to 54%, according to the Environmental Benefits of Precision Agriculture study. Conducted by AEM, the research also notes that because farmers are leveraging precision ag technologies, they’ve already reduced fertilizer use by 7%. 

“Raising the adoption rate to 90% is expected to result in a 14% reduction in fertilizer use,” says Curt Blades, senior vice president of ag services for AEM.

As income from product sales drops, Luckey Farmers offsets the decline by adding other services. “We’re not a very big cooperative, and we can’t offer the cheapest price for products. What we can do better than anyone else is service growers with digital technology,” Gladden says. 

Not only does Luckey Farmers emphasize that it uses Agworld and Farmobile internally, but it also stresses that both platforms can be used by growers. To incentivize adoption, growers who purchase agronomic products from the cooperative receive a 2% rebate toward the cost of an Agworld subscription. Today, around 150 of its members use the platform. Farmobile data collection use is also growing.

As it finds new ways to engage farmers, Luckey Farmers has created a triple play by having the right technology in place that benefits both the farmer and the ag retailer to fertilize crops in a sustainable way.

“In 2017, our research revealed that while over 90% of ag retailers were aware of the term 4R, it hovered around 26% for farmers,” Martin says, adding that farmers’ awareness does increase when talking about individual practices.

Progress, Tatge says, moves at the speed of trust. “Given all the fluff in ag tech, the existing relationships Luckey Farmers has with growers is what enables this to work, and it gives us the ability to provide a holistic view of an operation.”

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