A Farmer’s Look at Nitrogen

I’ve been a farmer all my life and an organic farmer for more than thirty years. Agriculture is as much about routine as it is about knowledge and innovation. Maybe it’s just the molecular biologist in me, but in my opinion, a farmer who simply goes through the motions of seeding and harvest and everyday maintenance is missing the opportunity to learn about his land and take advantage of its potential. So if you look out the window at your fields or your garden, what do you see? Do you see dirt and plants and bugs? Or do you see a healthy, nutrient-hardy soil and the ecosystem it supports? Let’s get specific, what is it that makes a healthy, nutrient-hardy soil? There are probably as many answers to that as the climates they flourish in. So more specific, what makes those answers successful? Nitrogen.

Nitrogen plays an enormous and necessary part in both agriculture and in life. Basic organic practices make use of nature’s methods in producing nitrogen, such as diversified crop rotations which especially include legumes and pulse crops rather than applying expensive, synthetic, and often questionable, additives.

But what is nitrogen? Why is it so important? At the risk of sounding like your sixth-grade science teacher, nitrogen is an element essential in creating a number of plant-necessities, including proteins, which are one of the building blocks of life. But nitrogen by itself doesn’t do much; it requires other elements—like oxygen and hydrogen—to become accessible to the plants in your garden, as ammonium and nitrates. Whether you’re a hobby gardener or a fourth-generation farmer like me, these are two words you’ve likely heard before. They show up in most every type of fertilizer and, organically, can be developed using animal manure, compost or legumes.

For those more familiar with chemical fertilizers, legumes may appear out of place in this list of nitrogen fertilizer options, so let me explain. Legumes are often used in organic crop rotations—they are in ours—because legumes have the distinct ability to interact with the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil and create nodules of nitrogen on the roots that the plants can use. So the bacteria fixes nitrogen for the plant and the plant provides an environment for the bacteria in a classic symbiotic relationship between organisms. This is the reason we grow both spring and winter peas, clover, alfalfa and sometimes lentils here on the farm and till them into the soil to provide for the continued development and availability of nitrogen for the next crop.

The fixed nitrogen, in the form of nitrates, are the most active and useful for plants. Nitrates combine with other chemicals within the plant to produce things like enzymes, chlorophyll and proteins. Some of these proteins become part of the stored proteins in grain, which is why nitrogen is particularly important on our farm with our high-protein KAMUT® wheat.

With a better understanding of nitrogen’s vital role in agriculture, it’s important to know that a very large percentage of the nitrogen in the soil is lost. Nitrogen can be lost from the soil in several ways, such as, immobilization, which is when nitrogen is tied up by microorganisms in the soil or plant material. It is also very soluble in water and can be carried out of the soil by leaching or flooding. For these reasons, we keep a close eye on our soil’s nitrogen levels and adjust our crop rotations as necessary to accommodate.

The continual opportunity to learn, both how to adapt and improve, is one of countless reasons my conversion to organic was both on the farm and in my life as a whole. Organic farming encourages more than just cultivating crops, it encourages understanding, invention and education.