Nutrient Stewardship: The 4Rs and the Farm Bill

After much anticipation, Congress passed and President Trump signed a new Farm Bill just before the holiday season, giving a Christmas gift to growers and the agriculture industry. While much of the news is rightfully focused on the benefits for growers, The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) is pleased the legislation also provides incentives to ag retailers and their grower-customers to implement 4R Nutrient Stewardship practices on the farm.

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4R Nutrient Stewardship is a science-based framework that uses the right fertilizer source, at the right rate, at the right time, and in the right place. The 4Rs can have a significant impact by increasing farmer profitability while reducing the amount of nutrients lost to the environment.

Agricultural retailers and crop advisors are a key component in helping farmers implement the 4Rs. According to a survey commissioned by TFI, an overwhelming majority of growers say their retailers and crop advisors are their most trusted resources when it comes to making on-farm decisions. Fortunately, Congress recognized this important relationship and included provisions in the conservation title of the farm bill to make several programs more accessible to these experts and their farmer customers.

Managed by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Technical Service Provider (TSP) Program provides financial assistance to advisors who work with growers to develop conservation plans, including nutrient management plans. This year’s Farm Bill clearly identifies that ag retailers qualify as third-party service providers and are eligible to be certified as a TSP, meaning they can be paid by NRCS for their services.

The new bill requires NRCS to streamline the process for ag retailers and other professional crop advisors that hold specialty certifications to become certified under the TSP program. This has been a major hurdle in the past, as the paperwork and training requirements were duplicative and burdensome.

Finally, Congress also provided authority for NRCS to allow ag retailers and cooperatives to certify technical service providers. While it is unclear how this will be implemented, there is an opportunity for ag retailers to become a major part of the TSP program, enrolling more acres in nutrient management plans based on the 4Rs.

Growers not only need assistance writing their plans but also in implementing them. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is typically where growers look for financial assistance to do this. TFI is extremely pleased that Congress clearly spells out in the Farm Bill report language their intent for EQIP funds to be used for 4R practice implementation.

The Need for Scientific Proof

While programs like TSP and EQIP help growers overcome the cost hurdle of planning and implementing nutrient management plans, there is another obstacle when it comes to implementation: scientific proof. The 4Rs are built upon decades of research. However, given the many different cropping systems across the U.S., much more knowledge is needed about how different suites of 4R practices can benefit yield and the environment.

That’s where the Farm Bill comes in again. Under the research title, there are important provisions that designate research examining the impact of the source, rate, timing, and placement of plant nutrients as a high-priority initiative. In practical terms, it directs the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to make research based on the 4Rs one of the agency’s priority areas. TFI intends to work closely with USDA officials throughout the implementation process.

No Farm Bill will ever be perfect for all constituents. TFI believes the current one is good news for the farm economy and includes many positives for the fertilizer industry and its farming customers. TFI has a long history of actively advocating for the 4Rs, a program that is proven to both improve agricultural productivity and minimize impact to the environment. Thankfully, Congress gets it, too.

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