By Dr. Pat Gruber, PhD, CEO, Gevo, Inc.
The world is changing, quickly, and right before our very eyes. At Gevo we think this change is good: People are demonstrating their ability and willingness to change their opinions about important issues as they learn new facts and grow their understanding. Take, for example, the idea that some people once thought agriculture was bad for the land.
There was a time when big agriculture was not good for the land—agriculture practiced as an extraction industry leaves dust and desolation. But many aspects of farming have changed for the better. Growing plants more sustainably can increase the health and fertility of soil by allowing organic material and other minerals to build up—more sustainable farming can reflect the best of natural processes. Think about all the irrigation sprinkler heads you’ve seen in lawns and golf courses. Are they sticking up out the ground after a few years? No! Instead, they’re increasingly recessed in the ground, getting deeper by the year as healthy soil piles up around them.
Year after year, plants commit their roots to the soil, creating a rich base for new plants to come along, ensuring the future life of the species. More and more farmers share in the motivations of the crops they plant. The soil is their very livelihood. If there is a better way, they use it, because stewardship of the land and improvements in yield and soil health go hand in hand: Healthy soils now mean healthier soils later.
Agriculture is one of the largest human systems we have on Earth. That size gives it an immense power to effect change and to affect our lives. With and because of our deep understanding of that basic relationship, Gevo help farmers who supply our feedstocks to understand how they can do more to create a positive difference.
In America’s Heartland, farmers raise No. 2 yellow dent corn in huge quantities. These farmers are stewards of the land, and many of their families have been on the same land for generations. They understand how to help the land deliver its best and they know every square inch of their plots. Paying attention to trends and collecting lots of data, they use science and technology to increase the yield of each acre, preserve water, and enrich their soil, which allows them to reduce fertilizer use and other inputs.
Not everything on a farm is driven by economics, but economics informs whether the farm can keep farming. Enriched soil and reduced fertilizer usage sound like great moves for the environmental impact of the farm, and they also make sense to the farmer who wants to stay in business.
Consider some of things that farmers do to increase yield and more sustainably farm—there is almost no gap in the reasons:
Farmers use satellite imagery to look at their fields and they can spot target problem areas in fields where there may be insects, drainage problems, or other factors that have an adverse effect on the health of their plants. Farmers target their soil treatment as well, using sophisticated systems for fertilizer application, pesticide delivery, and water management. Using just the inputs needed saves money and improves the sustainability profile at the same time.
By directing the solutions to specific target areas, farmers improve their efficiency and reduce time, labor, and cost. Tractors are equipped with satellite guidance systems that let farmers make the most of the geometry and topography of their fields. Farms have different land inputs on every square foot of field, only adding just the right amount of fertilizer or pesticide for a specific location in the fields. Precision means less waste, and less waste is the prime directive of sustainable ecosystems.
Gevo’s partner farmers use no-till or low-till techniques. Sometimes called strip-tilling or zone-tilling, this method tills a narrow strip of soil—four inches wide—where the seeds are planted. Fertilizer is applied only in this specific location so it can aid in the early growth of foliage and roots following seed germination. Precision-guided farm equipment places the strips between the rows of last year’s crops, leaving the existing root structure to hold the soil together as it decays. This additional organic matter feeds soil microbes and yields amplified sequestered carbon—carbon drawn from the atmosphere. Measuring this carbon sequestration is part of the equation to reduce the carbon intensity of every gallon of the fuel that Gevo makes and sells. Gevo’s sustainable aviation fuel captures somewhere from 1¾ to nearly 9 pounds (0.8 to 4 kilograms) of atmospheric carbon dioxide equivalents in the soil for every gallon of jet fuel produced.
Increasing carbon in the soil helps to offset the impact of fossil fuels, to be sure. From a systems perspective, it also increases feed and food production capabilities for the growing global population. The use of this natural carbon storehouse could sequester an additional 1 to 3 billion tons of carbon annually. That’s equivalent to roughly 3.5 billion to 11 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
Some Gevo partner farmers use solutions such as Rhyzolizer®️ from Locus AG Solutions, to improve yield, increase soil carbon, and reduce the soil’s naturally occurring emissions of nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide has 300 times the GHG impact as carbon dioxide. These solutions increase a plants’ ability to absorb nutrients, increase crop yields, reduce soil GHG emissions, and amplify soil carbon sequestration to reduce the carbon footprint of the grain harvested from fields. Farmers apply this proprietary combination of fungal and bacterial microbes through irrigation or placement in the root zone at planting and have seen improved yield to the tune of up to 20 percent or 11 more bushels per acre and a 24 percent increase in root weight. More mass means greater root volume to capture nutrients and also to supply complex carbohydrates to feed the elevated microbial populations, resulting in more carbon sequestered in the soil with each growth cycle. According to Locus AG Solutions, corn is shown to sequester as much as five additional tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per acre annually.
Managing soil properly also means managing water flow through the property. As rainwater flows it can rob the topsoil from corn fields, taking valuable nutrients with it and making early-season fieldwork challenging. Many farmers employ drain tiles to control drainage—this allows the water to filter through the soil rather than run off the top. Water control systems can be added to preserve water for later in the season, when soil moisture on its own can’t keep up with crop water demand. Farmers use these systems to set the water levels they want, allowing more drainage early in the season, then holding more water in the field to prevent nutrient losses later in the growing season. Nitrate losses and runoff from farms have been blamed for water-quality issues and hypoxia events downstream—including widely publicized “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico. Combined with increased soil organic matter, reduced tillage and cover crops, drain tiles and water-level control structures keep the nutrients on the property, and farmers can benefit from improved yield. Sustainability improvements mean benefits everywhere that farming has impacts.
It’s always important to think of sustainability in economic terms. Purchasing the nutrients and employing the labor and equipment to spread them is a pricey proposition, and over thousands of acres, it adds up. The organic matter from last year’s corn and diverse cover crops in the soil preserve nutrients held in the root and stalk of the corn and cover crops left in the field after harvest, as well as the microbial biomass in the soil that holds more water and nutrients and aerates the soil. The more sustainable farming practices Gevo supports and pays for benefit everyone economically and environmentally.
A healthy ecosystem of nutrient-rich soil will help next season’s plants grow and require less applied fertilizer to support this increased productivity. Gevo is working every day to increase the amount of biomass of our feedstocks used to create energy-dense liquid hydrocarbons is produced using regenerative farming techniques that build soil health and sequester more carbon in the ground.
Read more about advanced agriculture techniques in our whitepaper, Sustainable Farming Practices and Advanced Renewable Fuels.