AVOCA, Iowa — Dan Hansen is a farmer who primarily grows corn and soybeans. His family has been farming for many decades, and he’s hoping his sons will continue the tradition.
“I'm a fifth-generation farmer," Hansen said. "To be able to pass this on to my children and pass the land on and leave it better than it was, to me, we have to be economically sustainable as well as environmentally sustainable for that to happen.”
In his quest to be a more sustainable and productive farmer, Hansen came across Pivot Bio. Karsten Temme is the CEO.
“Pivot Bio is a company that is here to serve the farmers that make agriculture work by delivering nitrogen to their crops in a better way,” Temme said.
Nitrogen plays a critical role in plant growth. Hansen says farmers have to apply it to their fields to yield good crops. However, nitrogen fertilizer can be harmful to the environment.
“About half of the nitrogen fertilizer that gets applied to fields is lost to the environment before the crop can capture it,” Temme said.
Rebecca Boehm is the senior economist for the food & environment program with the Union of Concerned Scientists. She says nitrogen fertilizer can quickly enter waterways, causing billions of dollars of damage to marine habitats and fisheries.
“Despite nitrogen fertilizer being essential for plant production, it can easily dissolve in water once it's applied to farm soils,” Boehm said. "There's a large area in the Gulf of Mexico that has little to no oxygen in it. And so in this area, clams and sea life are harmed or killed as a result of the dead zone.”
She says the nitrogen fertilizer also reacts with soil creating a harmful greenhouse gas.
“It's really no laughing matter because it's 300 times more potent than one molecule of carbon dioxide," Boehm said. "And it also stays in the atmosphere for over 100 years. So this does significantly contribute to climate change.”
Knowing this, Hansen says he was thrilled to learn about Pivot Bio’s biological nitrogen fertilizer. He says not only is it better for the environment, but it also saves him time and money because he doesn’t have to apply nitrogen to his crops later in the season.
“It's the first of its kind microbe that can generate nitrogen from the atmosphere and produce it and provide a daily source of nitrogen for that corn plant," Hansen said. "But it's something that we haven't had in past generations, and so it's very hard for certain individuals sometimes to get a hold of that and say this is worth trying and investing in this technology.”
Boehm says additional methods can help farmers be more responsible with nitrogen, like covering bare land with other crops during the off-season.
“You don't harvest the cover crop you planted, and it keeps essentially the soil in place instead of having just a bare field," Boehm said. "When you have a bare field with no plants or any residue on top of it. That's when nitrogen can leave the soil and enter the water.”
Another sustainable practice is having what’s called prairie or buffer strips that are filled with native plants that attract pollinators. Prairie strips also prevent nitrogen from getting into the water supply.
Hansen says he’s trying to pass on what he’s learned to other farmers because it’s improved his bottom line. At the end of the day, he says there’s enough stress that comes with farming, and sustainable solutions give him hope that he’s setting up his sons for success in the future.
“It's a very risky business," Hansen said. "We don't need to come out west and go to Vegas because we're gambling every day.”