We all live downstream, as the wise adage goes. People, places, plants, animals, fish, and all living things thrive, survive, or perish—in some measure—at the will or mercy of those upstream.

One prime example is the Gulf of Mexico dead zone that forms every summer and covers thousands of square miles off the coast of Louisiana. One cause of these hypoxic, or oxygen-depleted, areas is farm-related pollution that wends its way south from the agricultural heart of America and through the Mississippi River basin.

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Maria Boerngen, an assistant professor in Illinois State University’s Department of Agriculture in cornfield
Maria Boerngen, an assistant professor in Illinois State University’s Department of Agriculture

What causes the pollution and makes farms so productive is the same thing: fertilizer. Crops need nitrogen and phosphorus in order to grow and produce the food farmers bring to market. Rain and melting snow carry excess fertilizer from farm fields, golf courses, suburban lawns, and sewage treatment plants into waterways. This nutrient-heavy runoff threatens water quality in Illinois and contributes to the gulf’s dead zone. Excess nutrients also promote algal blooms that can be harmful to wildlife and humans.

“Dead zones are areas in water bodies that have low oxygen concentration—that is where hypoxic comes from. That’s caused by the presence of too many nutrients such as the nitrogen and phosphorus that run into the Mississippi River and to the Gulf of Mexico,” said Maria Boerngen, an assistant professor in Illinois State University’s Department of Agriculture.

Boerngen is part of a team of researchers working on a study, formally known as the Data-Intensive Farm Management (DIFM) Project, that is examining the dead zone problem and how farmers can help alleviate pollution in the gulf while running economically successful operations. The goal of the project is to improve the way the world fertilizes its crops.

Boerngen is collaborating with agronomists, agriculture engineers, software developers, water quality specialists, and other technical experts on the sweeping federally funded project designed to discern the proper amount of nitrogen fertilizer that farmers should use to minimize pollution and maximize yields. The DIFM Project, based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, began in 2016 and will continue into early 2020. A $4 million United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant funds the study.

There is a scarcity of data available related to crop yields, fertilizer runoff, fertilization rates, and water quality once a program designed to vary fertilizer management has been tested. The authors of the DIFM Project have found that large-scale agronomic field trials are feasible and cost effective through the use of GPS-based precision agriculture technology. This technology may allow for more data to be generated that show how yields and water quality respond when fertilizer management has been varied. This improvement would then make it possible to provide superior fertilizer management advice to farmers.

“Farmers face a challenge of determining the most profitable level of fertilizer to use in their fields. Too little will cost them yield, and too much means fertilizer runs off and they are paying for extra inputs that they don’t need,” Boerngen said. “The DIFM Project is conducting field trials looking at how varying fertilizer application rates and seeding rates affect per-acre yield and per-acre costs, with per-acre profit being the bottom line.”

In addition to the Illinois institutions, universities from Massachusetts to Washington are involved in the study. The Illinois Corn Growers Association (ICGA) is also playing an important role.

This map shows where the Data-Intensive Farm Management Project collected yield data from U.S. fields in 2018: Illinois, Ohio, Kansas, New York, Nebraska, Montana, and Louisiana not shown.
This map shows where the Data-Intensive Farm Management Project collected yield data from U.S. fields in 2018: Illinois, Ohio, Kansas, New York, Nebraska, Montana, and Louisiana not shown. Data was also gathered from fields in Brazil, and Argentina that year.

The team and farmers work together using GPS technology to perform large-scale field trials on each participating farmer’s fields as the experiment’s parameters are plugged into each farmer’s machinery. In four years of study, field trials have been conducted in Illinois, Ohio, Kansas, New York, Nebraska, Montana, Louisiana, Brazil, and Argentina.

From these trials, the researchers are gathering important data regarding crop yield. In addition, DIFM is studying how fertilizer management affects water quality in the hope of reducing the amounts of nitrogen fertilizer that end up in the Mississippi River basin.

The DIFM Project is also investigating how nitrates are affecting groundwater. In 2012 the National Academy of Engineering described the problem of nitrogen pollution as a “grand challenge.” Three years later, the Illinois Water Resources Center, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and the Illinois Department of Agriculture developed the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (ILNLRS). This effort has called on “the state to reduce its phosphorus and nitrogen loads by 45 percent.”

Once complete, the data gathered and analyzed by the DIFM team will be shared with farmers to improve their operations and with the relevant government agencies. The aim is to educate those charged with writing legislative policies to make an informed and positive impact on water quality and farmers’ incomes.

“Ultimately we hope we can protect farmers’ incomes and also protect the environment from nitrogen runoff,” said Boerngen.

Boerngen’s connection to the project came through its lead investigator, Professor David Bullock, her former academic advisor at the University of Illinois.

“In order to study the human side of this issue and how farmers view these issues, we needed somebody who knows how to conduct survey research, which is where I come in,” Boerngen said. “We have surveyed the membership of the Illinois Corn Growers Association to get answers to those types of questions.”

head shot of George Hoselton
George Hoselton

Illinois State graduate student George Hoselton ’17, M.S. ’19, consulted with the ICGA to develop the DIFM research survey. The goal of the survey, which was sent to ICGA members, was to understand how farmers were perceiving and responding to the nutrient loss crisis and if they would be willing to meet nutrient loss goals. The 24-question survey was sent out in July 2018 to 3,850 ICGA members and closed in November 2018. Nearly 20 percent of recipients answered the survey, which is considered a high response rate for external surveys. Now complete, with its results analyzed, here were some key findings:

  • Over 65 percent of respondents indicated that they were very familiar/somewhat familiar with the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.
  • 80 percent of respondents indicated they were very concerned/somewhat concerned about nutrient loss.
  • Over 90 percent believe that nutrient loss negatively impacts the environment.
  • A little over 88 percent of respondents are very/somewhat concerned about regulations being implemented due to nutrient loss.
  • Nearly 80 percent of respondents indicated that they had already made changes to their farming practices because of nutrient loss.

Hoselton worked with Boerngen on the survey while finishing his master’s degree in agribusiness. For his thesis, he designed, administered, and analyzed the surveys. His surveys were based on a pilot study conducted by Benjamin Marks ’17, an agribusiness graduate who won the College of Applied Science and Technology’s Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Award.

“George’s contribution has been tremendous,” Boerngen said.

Boerngen is happy to have played a part in measuring the level of awareness and concern for these important environmental issues on the part of Illinois corn farmers. She is also pleased to have learned in her research that farmers are not only aware but have already been utilizing the “Best Management Practices” outlined in the ILNLRS.

“We can provide numbers showing the level of adoption of these practices by Illinois corn growers,” she said. “And, we have also discovered what some of the barriers are that are preventing some farmers from adopting those practices.”

Hoselton is preparing an information bulletin for the ICGA that will include data collected and analyzed in the survey. He presented his thesis project at a national conference in June.

In addition, as a result of the information gathered in the surveys, Boerngen and Hoselton are preparing two manuscripts, one for the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation and one for the Journal of Environmental Quality.

“What we have found is that Illinois corn growers are aware of the nutrient loss issue,” Boerngen said. “They are concerned about it, and they are already taking steps to address those concerns.”