Healthy Soil, Healthy Oregon

Plants need nutrients in order to provide us with the food and fiber we need to survive. And while farmers are cost-conscious, over 50% of the fertilizer applied to major U.S. crops washes out as runoff or leaches into our water supply. The result is wasted money for farmers, contaminated drinking water and increased incidence of toxic algae blooms in our rivers, lakes and streams. Unused nitrogen fertilizer that leaches into groundwater or washes into streams can lead to nitrate pollution in drinking water from wells and eutrophication and hypoxic zones in freshwater and coastal waters.

The human and environmental health concerns about nitrogen are not trivial: nitrate is one of the most widespread contaminants in aquifers around the world. Right here in Oregon, there are identified hotspots where thousands of Oregonians are unknowingly drinking water that could lead to cancer, miscarriage and “blue baby syndrome.” The primary sources of this nitrate contamination in Oregon’s groundwater are agricultural fertilizers, leaking septic tanks and animal manure. By decreasing the over-use of fertilizer we will help to reduce one source of this pollution, and protect drinking water in Oregon. At the same time, increasing fertilizer efficiency and soil health will reduce operational costs for farmers and agriculturalists and can benefit crop quality.

Soil is the foundation of any farming system. One of the best practices for reducing nutrient waste is building soil health. Healthy soils – earth that is teeming with life, plant matter and moisture – can provide a richer natural supply of nutrients. It can also support more resilient plants that better withstand pests and diseases. Healthy soils also retain more moisture, decrease water runoff, prevent erosion and increase the long-term accumulation of organic matter – a natural “sink” for climate-changing carbon.

There is a tremendous opportunity for efficiencies and cost savings. That’s why Oregon Environmental Council advocates for state investment in research, tools and education to increase the adoption of voluntary practices to build soil health and right-size fertilizer use with the goal of cost savings, and protecting crop quality and yield, as well as the safety of the water we drink. OEC is also working on state strategies to provide funding to homeowners  to maintain and repair their septic tanks to reduce their contribution to nitrate contamination in drinking water wells.

Using less fertilizer more efficiently works: Bailey Nurseries in Yamhill County reports saving over 50 percent of their fertilizer costs by focusing on using nutrients efficiently. Get to know the famers who are saving money, increasing crop yields and protecting Oregon’s water here.

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