An uphill battle for a farmer to provide a cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to fertilizer

As the agricultural industry faces soaring fertilizer costs 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 sent prices soaring amid a global fertilizer shortage last spring, putting many farmers in a difficult position: paying exorbitant prices for conventional fertilizers or considering different options.

Some resorted to the traditional method of spreading manure in the fields (which caused a shortage animal tube in some parts of North America), while others have considered switching to a variety of alternatives to provide nutrients for their crops.

One such alternative is a technique designed by Gary Lewis, a farmer from southern Alberta who is growing mustard, wheat and yellow peas on his 1,600 hectares of land this summer. For the cultivation of these crops, conventional fertilizers are not used. In fact, he hasn’t used any of it in 20 years.

Instead, he relies on a technology he has developed called Bio-Agtive, which collects the exhaust from his tractors and returns the material to the earth as a carbon-based bio-fertilizer.

Lewis says interest in Bio-Agtive has jumped this year, likely driven by dollars and cents. With last year’s drought, some farmers struggled to pay their bills, then he said, when fertilizer prices rose this spring, many family farms felt the financial pressure again.

“If there’s no need to change, you won’t,” he said, noting that he hopes the research being done on Bio-Agtive’s efficacy will motivate more people to adopt the technology.

Tampering with tractors and plant sciences

The fourth-generation farmer and father of five says he came close to financial collapse in years when his crops and soil failed.

A few decades ago, he started wondering how much manure he was using and became intrigued by the idea of ​​taking carbon exhaust from a tractor diesel engine and feeding it into the soil.

Lewis, who is also an auto mechanic, started repairing his workshop. His wife, Barb, said he became obsessed with plant science.

Lewis and his wife Barb on their farm near Pincher Creek in southern Alberta. (Donna McKellegott/CBC)

“He was reading science books on plant nutrition,” she said. “Then I see him make plants in egg cartons, put seeds and cut emissions from car exhaust and watch them grow.”

After much trial and error, Lewis built a 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 with the seeds or passed through its own irrigation system. He says he saw almost immediate improvements in his crops and soil.

“CO2 is the building blocks of life,” he said. “It makes sense that I could take the emissions from this jar and put it into a seed air delivery system and just try it. Why not? This is an experiment.”

Alternative options

The huge rise in fuel and fertilizer costs is the main reason why this year’s crop is considered the most expensive in Canadian history.

Other startups offering alternatives to conventional fertilizers say they are struggling too increasing of demands. Some companies, including Pivot Bio, Anuvia, and Kula Bio, are pushing their vegetable fertilizer products and using microbeads as a cheaper and more environmentally friendly option.

The federal government announced a 30 percent reduction in fertilizer emissions target in late 2020, and recently concluded a months-long consultation process on that climate goal.

An industry-led report released earlier this month suggests that Canadian farmers are likely to achieve half the federal government’s goal just by increasing the efficiency and accuracy of using conventional fertilizers.

Since 1990, the agricultural sector has produced nearly 10 percent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to the federal government.

One of the main challenges that alternative fertilizer startups face is getting farmers to give it a try. Many farmers are skeptical and reluctant to risk their livelihood on a new product.

Over the years, Lewis patented his technology, traveled to agricultural fairs and spoke to producers.

A few hundred farmers have used the Bio-Agtive system, which mounts on the front of their tractors and sells for $65,000 to $95,000. Australian Mick Dennis is one of them.

“It didn’t take long to find out that it was a well-understood and works very well in harmony with nature,” Dennis said during a phone interview, noting that he had seen an increase in the root growth of his crops and the organic matter in them. Soil since he started using the system.

“This isn’t just Bio-Agtive, it’s bio-activity and good agricultural practices.”

While the Lewis system has found a level of success with some growers, there is still not enough scientific evidence to determine whether it produces a lower cost, environmentally friendly alternative to commercial fertilizers while still producing similar crop sizes. At least not yet.

A farmer displays a handful of compost. Given the hike in fuel and fertilizer prices this year, experts describe 2022 as the most expensive crop in Canadian history. (Jeff Macintosh/The Canadian Press)

Search in progress

Over a decade ago, Jill Clapperton investigated whether Bio-Agtive might be harmful to soils as part of her work as a research scientist in Canadian Agriculture. She said it wasn’t harmful.

Whether Bio-Agtive is better than commercial fertilizers is another story. Clapperton found that there were slight differences between a field without compost versus those treated with emissions from a Lewis tractor.

“But the [crop yields] It was much lower than when using fertilizers.”

However, in subsequent research that I participated in as a consultant at Northern Montana State University in 2012, it was found that seeds treated with the Lewis system contained fewer soil-borne fungal diseases.

“In fact, the soot and trace metals from the exhaust that was covering the seeds and this little heat was a treat for the seeds,” Clapperton said.

Questions about whether, for how long, soils retain Bio-Agtive emissions, or how fields without fertilizers compare to those treated with Bio-Agtive emissions.

Lewis looks at results of lab tests on seeds from his farm produced using the Bio-Agtive System, which is also being tested by researchers at Olds College. (Donna McKellegott/CBC)

“I’m immediately skeptical because I’m a scientist,” says Angela Bedard-Hone, dean of the College of Agriculture and Bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan.

She said, “I think there is room in agriculture for all measures of practice, but, 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 needed to see how effective Bio-Agtive is compared to commercial fertilizers.

“If you add carbon to the soil in the form of carbon nanotubes and other black carbon – that is, very fine particles and diesel exhaust – it stimulates the colonization of microbes which can in turn release nutrients from the minerals in the soil,” he said. , noting that this could improve soil health and, ultimately, crop production.

More research is underway as scientists at Olds College in Alberta are measuring crop yields and collecting tissue and soil samples for laboratory analysis. A final report on the results of the Bio-Agtive system is expected from the college in early 2023.

While he anticipates these results, Lewis continues to meet with farmers, build new Bio-Agtive systems and sell them to people wanting to try something new to escape the high prices of traditional fertilizers.