The Dirt on Organic Fertilizers

The Dirt on Organic Fertilizers

A note from the author, Tom Scannell: Over my next several blogs I would like to introduce some questions and some answers in the ever-evolving quest for cleaner food, a cleaner environment, higher nutritional values and economic cost. I have grown commercial crops for over 36 years. I was raised in the farming world but love the concept of organic as it pertains to humane treatment, nutritional value, clean food and clean environment. However, “organic” may not be all its branded and marketed to be.

The following is a brief list of points that separate the hype from the fact when discussing organic vs. inorganic fertilizers.

01. First and maybe foremost, a nutrient is a nutrient is a nutrient. Plants do not differentiate organic from inorganic fertilizers.

The fact is; organic fertilizers must be “mineralized” or broken down into inorganic forms in the soil before the plants can assimilate (take up) the nutrients. Oh dear; plants only take up nutrients in inorganic from? Seriously.

02. By definition:
  • Organic Fertilizer – A soil amendment that contains carbon. E.g. Bone meal, cow manure, and kelp.
  • Inorganic Fertilizer – A soil amendment that does not contain carbon. It is derived from naturally occurring (albeit not “organic”) minerals like Sulfur, Phosphorus and Calcium.Organic marketing authors often impregnate duplicity in their adjective when describing inorganic fertilizers:
  • “Synthetic fertilizers”: Implies false or fake. Nothing could be further from the truth.
  • “Chemical fertilizers”: All fertilizers are chemical. It does not matter if they contain carbon, “organic” or not.
03. Pitfalls of Organic:
  • Not immediately available – must be broken down into inorganic form before it is available to the plant.
  • If the soil is too cold (>50° F), microbes will not be active and will not break down the nutrients.
  • If soil moisture is insufficient, microbes will not be active and will not break down the nutrients.
  • Low NPK ratios (1-1-1) make higher volume applications necessary to attain proper fertility levels.
  • Cost per pound is prohibitive when compared to mineral fertilizers.
  • Organic programs almost always must be supplemented with other products to attain adequate macros and minors.
  • Seedlings, fast growing plants and specific plant needs and/or deficiencies require corrective action and colder soil conditions. Organic fertilizers in these situations perform poorly.
  • Over application of phosphorus is common in organic applications, because nutrient leaves are closer to 1-1-1, you’re either going to have inadequate Nitrogen or excess Phosphorus.
04. Advantages of Inorganic:
  • Nutrients are readily available for plant uptake because they are in the right form.
  • With Species Specific blends, NPK ratios are calculated for exact needs of the plant which – which means your plants are getting the right amount and nutrient runoff is reduced.
  • Cost Per Pound of the actual nutrients is a fraction of organic cost.
  • Can be formulated with lower solubility products for slower release if desired (affected by water), can also be formulated with controlled-release coatings for slower, long term release (affected by temperature)
05. Marketing is all about perception, right? And the fertilizer industry has done a masterful job of hustling the organic story…

Ten years ago, ‘Certified Organic’ didn’t exist in the United States. Yet in 2010, a mere eight years after USDA’s regulations officially went into effect, organic foods and beverages made $26.7 billion. In the past year or two, certified organic sales have jumped to about $52 billion worldwide despite the fact that organic foods cost up to three times as much as those produced by conventional methods.

Christie Wilcox
Scientific American Magazine
  • Despite consumer perceptions, there is not consistent data that food grown with organic fertilizers are superior in nutrient content.
  • Despite consumer perceptions, there is consistent data pointing to increased nutrient leachate when only organic fertilizer is used.
  • Researches at the University of Michigan and Cornell University conducted a consumer rating of perceived values of organic vs. inorganic foods. According to the researches, the “halo-effect” occurred. That is, consumers attribute “organic” with everything in the food product to be better. Participants believed the organic products had tasted lower in fat, tasted higher in fiber, lower in calories and more nutritious. None of this was the case however. Oh dear! (‘When good deeds leave a bad taste: Negative inferences from ethical food claims.’ Jonathon P. Schuldt, Cornell University)

As a farmer, I understand organic fertilizers are expensive, relatively inefficient, not readily available, and cannot overcome major deficiencies while inorganic fertilizers…can. Our goal is to help you create beauty and joy in the landscape. We want you to see maximum visual results, at an economic cost, and protect the environment all at the same time.

  • Save money
  • Get results
  • Protect the environment
  • Go BGI!

Take care,