Organic fertilizers are fertilizers derived from animal matter, human excreta or vegetable matter. (e.g. compost, manure). In contrast, the majority of fertilizers are extracted from minerals (e.g., phosphate rock) or produced industrially (e.g., ammonia). Naturally occurring organic fertilizers include animal wastes from meat processing, peat, manure, slurry, and guano.
Examples and sources of organic fertilizer
The main source of organic fertilizer is peat, an immature precursor to coal. Peat itself offers no nutritional value to the plants, but improves the soil by aeration and absorbing water.
Chicken litter, which consists of chicken manure mixed with sawdust, is an organic fertilizer that has been shown to better condition soil for harvest than synthesized fertilizer. Researchers at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) studied the effects of using chicken litter, an organic fertilizer, versus synthetic fertilizers on cotton fields, and found that fields fertilized with chicken litter had a 12% increase in cotton yields over fields fertilized with synthetic fertilizer. In addition to higher yields, researchers valued commercially sold chicken litter at a $17/ton premium (to a total valuation of $78/ton) over the traditional valuations of $61/ton due to value added as a soil conditioner.
Processed organic fertilizers include compost, humic acid, amino acids, and seaweed extracts. Other examples are natural enzyme-digested proteins, fish meal, and feather meal. Decomposing crop residue (green manure) from prior years is another source of fertility.
Other ARS studies have found that algae used to capture nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from agricultural fields can not only prevent water contamination of these nutrients, but also can be used as an organic fertilizer. ARS scientists originally developed the "algal turf scrubber" to reduce nutrient runoff and increase quality of water flowing into streams, rivers, and lakes. They found that this nutrient-rich algae, once dried, can be applied to cucumber and corn seedlings and result in growth comparable to that seen using synthetic fertilizers.
Recycled sewage sludge (aka biosolids) as soil amendment is only available to less than 1% of US agricultural land. Industrial pollutants in sewage sludge prevents recycling it as fertilizer. The USDA prohibits use of sewage sludge in organic agricultural operations in the U.S. due to industrial pollution, pharmaceuticals, hormones, heavy metals, and other factors. The USDA now requires 3rd-party certification of high-nitrogen liquid organic fertilizers sold in the U.S.
Sewage sludge use in organic agricultural operations in the U.S. has been extremely limited and rare due to USDA prohibition of the practice (due to toxic metal accumulation, among other factors).
Animal sourced urea and urea-formaldehyde from urine are suitable for organic agriculture; however, synthetically produced urea is not. The common thread that can be seen through these examples is that organic agriculture attempts to define itself through minimal processing (e.g., via chemical energy such as petroleum — see Haber process), as well as being naturally occurring or via natural biological processes such as composting.
- Blood meal
- Bone meal
- Cover crops
- Fish emulsion
- Fish meal
- Rock phosphate
- Raw Langbeinite
- Unprocessed natural potassium sulfate
- Wood chips/sawdust
- Heinrich Dittmar, Manfred Drach, Ralf Vosskamp, Martin E. Trenkel, Reinhold Gutser, Günter Steffens "Fertilizers, 2. Types" in Ullmann's Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry, 2009, Wiley-VCH, Weinheim. doi:10.1002/14356007.n10_n01
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