If there’s one thing we know for sure, it’s that you can’t make something from nothing. Growing healthy plants requires nutrient-rich soil, genetically-healthy seeds, and literal tons of resources. These resources include water, fertilizer, and energy from farmers and machines. Even more resource-intensive? The process of transforming those stalks in the field into the food you buy at a grocery store or farmer’s market. Unfortunately, each of these processes—from planting to bagging—produces agricultural waste and byproducts.
The same is true of everything in our daily lives. Consider the simple act of cooking yourself a meal. Even a family classic like spaghetti and meatballs produces a fair amount of waste. Think about it: you have to dispose of the grease from your meatballs. You pour the extra water from your boiled noodles down the drain. Then you have the packaging from your sauce and noodles to contend with. Will it end up in a landfill? Will you recycle or reuse it?
And before you even started cooking, you have your drive to and from the store to consider. Forgot your reusable shopping bags? Now you get to add paper or plastic bags to the total waste produced by this meal. When it comes to combating waste, there are a lot of moving parts to consider.
The same is true of agricultural processes. But considering the global scale of ag waste, it’s a much more pressing concern. To support our sustainability mission, Northerly uses technology and science to recycle where we can and combat ag waste where we see it.
Defining agricultural waste
Though we all have a general idea of what the term means, finding one definition for ag waste can be tricky. One huge reason? There’s a vast difference between public perception and a farmer’s reality. For example, what do you think of when you hear the words “agricultural run-off”? If you imagine factory farms willfully dumping toxic sludge into our nation’s waterways, you’re not alone.
But, farmers hear those words and think irresponsible land management. They understand run-off chemicals are part of a broader problem.
We can agree that agricultural processes create agricultural waste. These processes include the steps required to grow, harvest, and process agricultural products. This waste can include animal waste, plant waste, and material waste. One of the biggest concerns with agricultural waste the world over is the pollution of groundwater supplies.
At Northerly, we’ve expanded the definition of agricultural waste to include what happens off the farm too. Waste produced by transporters, millers, baggers, and yes, even consumers, contributes to the problem.
Top sources of agricultural waste
But agricultural waste is not limited to farms in the strict sense of the world. It includes all agricultural practices. Agriculture is the science of raising plants and livestock. As such, it includes the production of food, fibers, fuels, and raw materials. Reports show that agricultural waste, especially from industries like palm oil, wood processing, and rubber, has increased threefold in recent years.
As a sustainable farm, we contend with specific types of agricultural waste. Others are a non-issue. For instance, our friends in the livestock industry have to worry about disposing of animal waste. We don’t (luckily!). Instead, we focus on managing fertilizer byproducts, pesticides and herbicides, and plant waste.
Pesticides include both insecticides and herbicides. If we stopped using all pesticides, right now, global food production would fall by 42% overnight. Despite the negative press they get, pesticides are necessary if we want to feed the world. Of course, we’ve come a long way since the 1940s when children played in plumes of pesticide and sprayer trucks rumbled down public streets. We also no longer adhere to the adage, “if a little is good, a lot more will be better.”
Thanks to scientific advancements, we know that pesticides and herbicides accumulate in the soil. This can harm the beneficial microbes we work so hard to support. Many pesticides are also water-soluble, meaning they can leach into nearby water supplies. One of the biggest issues? Pesticides also impact non-targeted plants, birds, and other wildlife, not just the pests we’re trying to keep from eating our crops.
The role of GMOs
Sure, GMOs spur a lot of negative talk around the water cooler. But they’re actually a powerful tool in the fight against agricultural waste. This is especially true when it comes to reducing our reliance on pesticides. Through GM technology, we can grow crops that are inherently pest-resistant. As the writers at A Fresh Look note, “When crops protect themselves, we don’t have to.” GM crops require less frequent spraying, and allow us to use milder, and less herbicides and insecticides. In fact, a recent meta-analysis of GM crop impacts showed that GM technology has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37 percent.
Plants need nitrogen to grow, plain and simple. When there’s more nitrogen present, they grow better. But not all types of nitrogen are readily available for plants to use. When Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch found a way to transform nitrogen in the air into fertilizer, they revolutionized modern farming. Unfortunately, the thing that makes these fertilizers effective—high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—also makes them dangerous.
Run-off from fertilizer overuse can lead to eutrophication in bodies of water. Essentially, the water becomes so nutrient-dense that it promotes unchecked algae growth. This algae disrupts delicate aquatic ecosystems and causes animal dead-zones.
Risk and reward
We know what you’re thinking. If these things are so dangerous, why do we use them in the first place? Often, it boils down to weighing the risks and rewards. Synthetic, nitrogen-rich fertilizers allow us to feed 60% more people with each acre of farmland. In fact, without them, experts say we’d be unable to support over 40% of the global population. When it comes to weighing the risks and the rewards, that seems like a pretty big pill to swallow.
Similarly, pesticides aren’t only used to control insect and rodent populations. They’re used to prevent the diseases that accompany them. This includes vector-borne diseases like the West Nile virus, Lyme disease, and rabies, as well as microbial contamination and even anthrax spore outbreaks.
Of course, these modern tools require modern checks and balances to be successful. By leveraging technology to check our soil nutrient levels, we know how much or how little fertilizer needed to support plant growth without risking run-off. Even more important, we know which stages of the growing cycle to apply fertilizer, so plants can most readily use the nutrients.
Another reason farmers don’t want to over-apply products? They’re expensive. Carelessness with nutrients, herbicides, and pesticides is bad for the bottom line. At the end of the day, farmers who are reckless with applications are not only irresponsible land and resource stewards. They’re also poor business managers.
Primary and secondary benefits
As a 2009 article in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Toxicology points out, there are also secondary benefits to using pesticides and fertilizers. For example, if Farmer Joe uses pesticides to keep caterpillars from eating his cabbages, the primary benefit will be fewer cabbages lost to caterpillars. That’s obvious. But there may be other, related benefits as well. The authors elaborate, “For example, the higher cabbage yield might bring additional revenue that could be put towards children’s education or medical care, leading to a healthier, better-educated population. There are various secondary benefits identified, ranging from fitter people to conserved biodiversity.”
It might seem like a stretch to argue that pesticides lead to a more educated population. But sustainable agriculture views everything as an interconnected system, where each decision has countless, radiating effects. After all, a single seed created the modern world as we know it.
Thinking beyond chemical waste
Though they understandably draw the most attention because of their potential health impact, chemicals are not the only sources of agricultural waste. Though less dangerous to human health, green waste and carbon emissions still present an obstacle to truly zero-waste farming.
Green waste, or biological waste, is any organic waste that can be composted. For Northerly, this includes plant stalks, hulls, husks, and other fibrous plant material. It can also include weeds, old trees, branches, hedges, and other plants that are otherwise invasive around the farm. We shred much of our leftover fibrous plant material to spread over the ground during the harvest process. This puts organic material back into the soil to decompose and potentially provide additional nutrients. Additionally, we intentionally harvest some crops in a way that leaves tall stalks. These stalks catch snow in the winter to increase soil moisture and improve the water availability for spring seed germination. Every little bit helps when you’re trying to ensure a strong start.
On top of these common practices, Northerly is investigating sustainable alternative uses for nuisance plant materials. Take flax or hemp straw as an example. These plants are so tough that it they’re harvested in the fall and spread over the fields, they don’t break down completely by spring seeding. The straw wreaks havoc—jams the machines, wraps around bearings, and plugs the equipment. Not only that, but it affects the planting quality. Because the fiber lifts the equipment, you end up with uneven seed depth. This can lead to improper germination or even seed death due to temperature and soil moisture content.
To avoid these issues, many farmers collect and burn the straw after harvest. Unfortunately, all of that burning plant matter has a serious impact on air quality. At Northerly, we are actively looking to partner with companies that provide an alternative use for the fiber. This is just one more way we can turn waste into something useful.
Potential benefits of agricultural waste
Sustainable agriculture is not about returning to the ways we used to farm. It’s about harnessing new science and technology to optimize the way we farm now and into the future. To that end, we can view the challenge of agricultural waste as an opportunity for innovation.
Many agricultural wastes can be productive resources. For example, in livestock farming, agricultural slurry can be converted to a cheap and plentiful fertilizer. Instead of waste storage being a necessary evil, it becomes an economically profitable activity.
Similarly, a lot of the plant material that we can’t use for food (stalks, leaves, hulls), can be recycled to improve soil health. As this plant material decomposes, it feeds the soil’s microbiome and replenishes nutrient levels. Suddenly, instead of being a problem to dispose of, our fibrous waste becomes something useful to the land. This recycling can even help us more responsibly use synthetic fertilizers.
Some studies even show that agricultural waste could be the next breakthrough source of sustainable energy.
How Northerly reduces agricultural waste at every step of the growing process
Thanks to science, data, and technology we know our crops’ needs down to the pound. We can see how water availability and humidity affect nutrient applications. We have seeding and harvesting equipment specifically designed to reduce waste. Through innovation and exploration, Northerly is committed to leading the way in reducing agricultural waste.
Variable rate seeding
Thanks to data and technology, we’re able to calculate exactly how much nutrients a particular plot of land needs. Before, we might hedge our bets and apply 100 lbs of nutrients per acre. While this ensures that no land is undernourished, it fails to account for the parts of land that naturally produce more nutrients of their own.
Equipped with the latest tech, our seeder can read yield maps from the combines. Those yield maps, combined with soil and tissue tests, let us determine nutrient needs based on zone. “Green” zones naturally produce more nutrients, and need less fertilizer. “Red” zones receive more nutrients to bolster their productions.
This lets us reduce waste by maximizing field productivity and resource utilization by zone.
We’ve already talked about how the CropIntelligence app interprets data and empowers us to make informed decisions. But it also helps us more responsibly manage our resources, especially fertilizers. We can apply based on the precise moisture level. Not enough water? We don’t apply nutrients because there’s no way for the plant to absorb them. That keeps unused nutrients from leaching into the soil.
We do tissue tests periodically throughout the growing period to test for micronutrients and adjust for deficiencies. For example, if we test our Canola and find that it’s lacking zinc, we can apply liquid zinc to help the plant maintain better nutrient levels. This testing gives us a more complete picture of the plant’s nutrient content and lets us grow not only more food, but better food.
During harvest AI technology automatically adjusts the combine so less crop is accidentally thrown out the back. We used to have to do this manually before. We were only able to set once in the morning and once at night. Now the machine uses sensors and cameras to adjust constantly, monitoring the harvest every minute that we’re up and running. This same system also manages our speed and power. By always running the combine at max capacity and efficiency, we use less fuels, maximize our average speed, and minimize how much crop is lost. It’s also less for the operator to keep track of, which reduces worker fatigue.
We truly believe that high-tech equipment is crucial to reducing ag waste. That’s why we always put money into the most advanced options. But sometimes the solution is a lot simpler than AI and smart farming. Small innovations like wider tires, or more expensive options like track-systems, can reduce soil compaction. Soil compaction affects everything from nutrient availability to water flooding and nutrient run-off. Just by changing the way we cross the fields, we can reduce waste.
The movement towards zero-waste agriculture
The ultimate goal of sustainability is zero-waste agriculture. In a zero-waste model, we would use all five natural kingdoms—plants, animals, bacteria, fungi, and algae—to produce food in a synergistic system.
Zero waste agriculture balances economic, social, and ecological benefits as it:
- Optimizes food production without harming the environment
- Reduces water consumption through recycling and reduced evaporation
- Uses byproducts from food production to create energy security
- Reduces greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change
- Reduces the use of pesticides and fertilizers through biodiverse farming
Sound familiar? It should. These are a lot of the same principles and goals that already drive Northerly’s sustainability practice. Essentially, zero-waste farming asks us to innovate how we can grow better food, for more people, with even fewer resources.