Behind the Nutrient Recycling Challenge

By Joseph Ziobro

It’s pretty great when your job involves finding the cutting edge of innovation. Over the past few years, I’ve been looking into technologies that make it easier for livestock producers to manage manure, protect water quality, and create new sources of revenue.

One area where we see promise is in nutrient recovery technologies. These technologies extract nutrients from manure and create fertilizer products that can be applied more precisely to crops and affordably transported greater distances. Thousands of livestock producers are asking for these technologies, but they are still not efficient enough to be in wide use.

That’s where innovation challenges come in. My teammate, Hema Subramanian, and I reached out to key players in manure management and asked, “What can we do together to get producers the technologies they want, and protect water quality?” People were extremely excited, so we convened a planning committee with dairy and pork producers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, scientists and environmental experts.

Together, we identified barriers to technology adoption and began crafting a prize competition to overcome those barriers. The Nutrient Recycling Challenge was born.

In a nutshell, we’re asking innovators to develop better and cheaper nutrient recovery technologies. A major draw of prize competitions is that they reach innovators from different backgrounds who can bring fresh perspectives to the table. We want outside-the-box thinking from innovators of all stripes — tenured scientists or weekend garage tinkerers.

Phase I of the Challenge is open now through Jan. 15, and we are looking for your concept papers describing technology ideas. Later in 2016, EPA and partners will identify the most promising entries and support semi-finalists as they turn their concepts into working technologies.

EPA is committed to building relationships with the livestock industry through partnerships. The Nutrient Recycling Challenge exemplifies this collaborative approach. Our starting point is that EPA and farmers both want healthy waters and prosperous agriculture. And we’re looking for your innovative ideas to help us get there.

For more information and to enter, go to www.nutrientrecyclingchallenge.org.

About the author: Joseph Ziobro is a physical scientist in the Rural Branch of the Water Permits Division at EPA. Joseph supports the Clean Water Act’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program as well as voluntary initiatives with the livestock industry.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Apples for the Big Apple:  Northeast Growers Manage Pests to Produce Quality Apples

By Marcia Anderson

Apples are susceptible to fungal spores that can blemish the fruit and cause economic harm to the growers.

Apples are susceptible to fungal spores that can blemish the fruit and cause economic harm to the growers.

Apple growers battle pest problems on a continual basis. To pests, such as moths, mites, and fungi, an apple orchard is a place to eat or a place to reproduce. Because the ecology in every orchard is different, pest conditions and circumstances are different for every grower, so controlling pests using Integrated Pest Management (IPM) makes sense.

IPM has become more and more engrained in apple pest management in the northeast over the past 30 years because most northeastern growers live right on their farms. It is in their best interests to keep the land and water as clean as possible. Apple growers have found the most effective way to control their pests is by using scientifically-based IPM practices that have positive long-term effects on their orchards.

Growers monitor their orchards weekly from the beginning of spring through the entire growing season to determine pest pressures. The growers and crop consultants become intimate with their location, learn about past disease and pest pressures, and learn the ecology of their orchards. Admittedly, they learn something new every year.

There is also an economic impact when farmers use IPM. They stand to reduce their two highest bills – chemicals (pesticides and fertilizers) and fuel – when they follow the five components of IPM. These components are: 1) prevent pests; 2) identify the specific pests present; 3) set economic thresholds for each pest as a decision making tool; 4) monitor for pests and their damage, and; 5) use a combination of management tools.

Maintenance and sanitation are key parts of preventing pests in apple orchards. Every year, growers follow a rigorous routine in the fall by cleaning the orchard floor, cutting suckers off tree trunks and clearing weeds from under the trees. Fallen leaves, grass clippings, and winter prunings are mulched and returned to the soil. By chopping the leaves into small bits, they will decompose more quickly and neither the pests nor diseases will have anywhere to live over winter. This reduces the pest populations that will be in the orchard in the next spring. The only thing that is removed are the apples.

Just by being particular about maintaining this degree of sanitation, growers have been very successful in reducing the presence of apple scab, one of the most persistent pest problems in orchards. Apple scab comes from a fungal spore that overwinters on the ground. It normally requires a fungicide (anti-fungal pesticide) to be sprayed in order to arrest its development. Those spores go on the fruit and make leathery-brown scabs that blemish the fruit. Blemished fruit is considered to be of lower quality, so its value is reduced leading to an economic loss to the grower.

Apple scab also damages the tree because it creates lesions on the leaves that spread and interfere with photosynthesis. A bad scab infection can shut down a whole tree and spread quickly throughout the orchard. So orchard sanitation is a very important part of scab control.

Other pest prevention methods include planting pest-resistant varieties and nutrient replenishing. Just like people, apple trees need specific nutrients to keep them healthy to produce quality fruit. When hundreds of bushels of apples per acre are removed annually, it means a lot of nutrients are removed from the orchard soil. Monitoring soil nutrient levels and adding nutrients, as needed to maintain tree health, is an essential component of IPM.

Apple trees need a wide range of macro nutrients (those needed in large quantity to provide energy) including nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Nutrients are added either directly to the soil or by spraying on the tree leaves. Many soils in the northeast have high phosphorous levels and adequate nitrogen levels. If nitrogen is needed, it is most often applied through foliar application. Potassium is the macro nutrient (those vitamins and minerals needed in small amounts for proper plant health) that needs to be replaced on a regular basis. By running soil tests and recording the number of bushels of apples that were removed, growers can calculate how much potassium must be added back to the soil. Micronutrients, such as calcium, magnesium, zinc, boron and manganese, also need to be replenished. These are all added through foliar applications.

You can see northeastern growers discuss using IPM to prevent pests in a series of three videos by the New England Apple Association.

So why should we care about pest prevention and the appropriate use of pesticides on our apples? One reason is that apples are very prevalent in the diets of our children. They’re used to make juice and sauce, as well as eaten raw. They’re good for us! Utilizing the scientifically-based best practices of IPM, northeastern apple growers are able to provide us with high quality apples at reasonable prices.

 About the Author: About the Author: Marcia is with EPA’s Center of Expertise for School IPM in Dallas, Texas. She holds a PhD in Environmental Management from Montclair State University along with degrees in Biology, Environmental Design, Landscape Architecture, and Instruction and Curriculum. Marcia was formerly with the EPA Region 2 Pesticides Program and has been a professor of Earth and Environmental Studies, Geology, and Oceanography at several universities.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Farmers Using Special Crops in Holtwood, PA to Protect Soil & Help Their Farms Thrive

By Kate Pinkerton and Erika Larsen

It is hard to imagine anything growing in fields during winter, but last fall, we visited a farm in Pennsylvania that was covered in thriving, green crops. This farm showcases crop research and water quality conservation practices on agricultural lands. One of its practices is planting “cover crops” – or crops planted specifically to help replenish the soil and protect our waters outside of the typical farming season.

We are two coworkers in the Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education (ORISE) program in the EPA Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds. We come from two different backgrounds – agriculture and water quality – to help farmers ensure that nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen stay on the farm where they help crops grow, rather than getting washed into our rivers and streams where they can build up and become nutrient pollution, or the excess of the vital nutrients phosphorus and nitrogen.

Farmers plant cover crops to improve and protect their soil and keep these nutrients from washing away in runoff, especially when they’re not growing crops they can sell. A variety of plants can be used as cover crops, including grasses, grains, legumes or broadleaf plants. By planting cover crops, farmers help the environment and themselves by increasing their soil’s health and water retention, potentially increasing crop yields and creating more habitat for wildlife.

The 200-acre farm we visited in Holtwood, PA – owned by Steve and Cheri Groff – produces corn, alfalfa, soybeans, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers and pumpkins. Annual cover crops help the farm be productive by maintaining a permanent cover on the soil surface at all times. During the tour, we talked with the Groffs about how cover crops store nutrients for the next crop and impact yields, what cover crop mixtures to use and the benefits of having multiple species. We also watched demonstrations on cover crop rooting depths, and how cover crops help soil health and water/nutrient cycling.

We were joined by other local farmers, agricultural conservation NGO staff, and representatives from other government agencies, including USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and Risk Management Agency. Rob Myers, Regional Director of the North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, said, “When you compare fields that are normally bare in the fall with a cover crop field capturing sunlight and protecting soil and water, it’s a pretty striking comparison.”

We enjoyed checking out the Groffs’ farm and seeing the wonderful progress that has been made on cover crop use and research, and we’re excited by the opportunities to collaborate to improve soil health and water quality. We hope to see this field continue to grow!
To learn more about cover crops please visit our website: http://water.epa.gov/polwaste/nps/agriculture/covercrops.cfm.

 

ORISE program participant Kate Pinkerton, Chief of the Rural Branch in EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management Allison Wiedeman, and ORISE program participant Erika Larsen stand in front of a cover crop research plot at Steve and Cheri Groff’s farm in Holtwood, PA.

ORISE program participant Kate Pinkerton, Chief of the Rural Branch in EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management Allison Wiedeman, and ORISE program participant Erika Larsen stand in front of a cover crop research plot at Steve and Cheri Groff’s farm in Holtwood, PA.

 

About the authors:

Erika Larsen is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) research participant in the Nonpoint Source Control Branch in EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds. Erika is a soil scientist from Florida and currently works on agriculture and water quality issues.

Kate Pinkerton is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) program participant on the Hypoxia Team in EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds. Kate is originally from Kentucky and studied environmental science at American University. She currently works on nutrient pollution and hypoxia issues in the Mississippi River Basin and the Gulf of Mexico.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

New Challenge: Put Technology to Work to Protect Drinking Water

You likely remember when, this past summer, half a million people who live in the Toledo, Ohio, area were told not to drink the water coming out of their taps for several days. A state of emergency was declared because of a harmful algal bloom, which released toxins into the water that could have made many people ill.

Algal blooms like the one near Toledo are partly caused by an excessive amount of nutrients in the water – specifically, nitrogen and phosphorus. These nutrients are essential for ecosystems, but too many of them in one place is bad news. Not only do harmful algal blooms pose huge risks for people’s health, they can also cause fish and other aquatic wildlife to die off.

Cleaning up drinking water after a harmful algal bloom can cost billions of dollars, and local economies can suffer. The U.S. tourism industry alone loses close to $1 billion each year when people choose not to fish, go boating or visit areas that have been affected. It’s one of our country’s biggest and most expensive environmental problems. It’s also a particularly tough one, since nutrients can travel from far upstream and in runoff, and collect in quieter waters like lakes or along coastlines. Continue reading

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.