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 Advocate for the Unlettered, by Dale Smith.


Beneath a cloudy sky on a cool May morning, a dark green tractor slowly makes its way across Mark Nuelle's cornfield. Nuelle, who has farmed this piece of northwest Missouri land for all of his 49 years, stands with a small group of men. They are talking quietly, watching the tractor's progress.

From a distance, the scene is vintage Midwest pastoral. But move closer, and you'll hear the men casually confer in terms no farmer would have used a generation ago: words like "algorithm," "global positioning," "megs" and "diodes."

Nuelle is chatting with a group of scientists from MU and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They have come to his field hoping to change the way he uses nitrogen-based fertilizer, a key chemical in his quest to boost crop yields. Their proposal is deceptively simple: instead of dosing entire fields with a "constant rate" of fertilizer inputs, the researchers ask, why not try to apply nitrogen only when and where it's needed?

"Our goal today is to cut back on nitrogen fertilizer where the soil doesn't need as much," says one of the group, Peter Scharf, a soil fertility specialist in MU's Division of Plant Science Extension. "It's good for everybody because the farmer has less expense, there's no yield loss, and it keeps the nitrogen out of the water."

Every year, farmers scatter close to 7 million tons of nitrogen inputs across fields located in the Missouri and Mississippi River Basins. All this nitrogen has allowed farmers to double or even triple the amount of food they harvest, and has helped to make American agriculture the envy of the world. Unfortunately, it may be too much of a good thing. Farmers often use far more nitrogen than they really need, say researchers. The extra nitrogen doesn't remain in the soil for next year's crop; instead it washes away with rains and seeps into groundwater.

Eventually, much of this excess nitrogen flows from local rivers and streams into the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, then down to the Gulf of Mexico. There it contributes to what marine researchers have identified as a huge -- as much as 20,000 square kilometers -- problem.

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