Farmers in the Neuse River Basin played a huge role in meeting the state-mandated goals to reduce nitrogen runoff. In the process, they are putting more thought into nutrient application, says the scientist in charge of the project.

North Carolina law mandated agriculture and industry to a 30-percent non-point source reduction in nitrogen loading by 2003. In 1993, the Neuse River was declared a nutrient sensitive basin. The Neuse River Basin takes in a 17-county area from the Piedmont to the coast.

To help farmers meet these rules, North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service developed the Neuse Crop Management Project. This project provides a sociological and environmental snapshot of farmers who have adapted to the pressure of mandatory nitrogen-loading laws without sacrificing yields. “It's good for the river and for my pocketbook,” one farmer said.

During a four-year period running from 1998-2002, the agricultural community within the 200-mile long basin reduced nitrogen losses by 23 percent and implemented nutrient-management plans on more than 280,000 acres. Producers also reduced the use of pre-emergence herbicide by 40 percent, largely due to the adoption of Roundup Ready soybeans, corn and cotton.

“I feel very positive about the responsiveness of the producers toward meeting the 30-percent nitrogen-reduction goal,” says Deanna Osmond, North Carolina State University soil scientist, who was in charge of the project.

During the Neuse Crop Management Project, researchers conducted on-farm experiments and interviewed farmers regarding their production practices in the Neuse River Basin before and after the project.

Two-thirds of the farmers involved in the project have reduced nitrogen application from 1998-2002. “That figure is instructive,” Osmond says.

To meet the goal, producers developed nutrient management programs and best management practices, with help from county agents, technicians, North Carolina State University experts, as well as Natural Resources and Conservation Service and Soil and Water Conservation District personnel. The best management practices included water control structures, shrub buffers and winter cover crops.

Before the project, farmers had concerns about being able to meet the mandated nitrogen reduction goal, Osmond says. “When producers started working with us, they realized that the rules weren't as scary as they thought.” Prior to the rules becoming law, farmers expressed the sentiment that agriculture was being blamed for the majority of the problem.

On-farm experiments helped demonstrate the cost-benefit analysis of reducing nitrogen applications. For example, one farmer in Franklin County, N.C., saved $63 per acre on nitrogen applications without reducing yields. As a result of the project, experts were able to develop an accounting tool for nitrogen losses to show farmers the benefit of reducing nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous levels. “We were seeing a cost savings of $20-$50 per acre in a nutrient management program,” Osmond says. A cost-benefit analysis showed that buffers were more cost effective than cover crops in controlling nitrogen excluding nutrient management.

In general, larger acreage growers who worked intensively with the project were more positive about their nutrient management plans than other growers, the report concluded. “Those involved with the project saw the benefits of improved nutrient management more clearly,” Osmond says.

On average, producers reduced nitrogen applications 15-20 percent on cotton, 14-28 percent on corn, 15-24 percent on tobacco and 4-20 percent on wheat. “The project helped us think through what we are doing and not just apply fertilizer according to tradition,” one farmer commented.

“Most of the tobacco farmers had already decreased nitrogen use to produce the higher-quality, lower-nitrate crop now in demand,” Osmond says.

In addition to the benefit of meeting the mandatory reduction, farmers also learned more about their soils through sampling. “The project's two- or five-acre sampling blocks provided growers better information than the 10-acre block they generally sampled,” Osmond says.

Looking back on the project, Osmond says local involvement was the main reason for its success. County Extension agents worked with Osmond and farmers to develop individual nutrient management plans for farms. County agents and technicians in Lenoir, Franklin, Jones, Wayne and Craven counties were instrumental in managing the project on a local level, Osmond says. “The technicians and the county agents made this project a success.”

Growers interviewed at the end of the project cited knowledgeable technical staff as an important part of the success of the program.

The Neuse Crop Management Project was funded by more than $2 million from the Pew Charitable Trust and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through the Center for Agricultural Partnerships, the North Carolina Clean Water Management Fund, the UNC Water Resources Institute, the North Carolina State Cooperative Extension Service, the EPA 319 and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.