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Nutrient Pollution

Farmer Story: For Long Island Farmers, Fertilizer is Key to Saving Money, Reducing Work, and Protecting Community

Tom Wickham is the owner and operator of Wickham’s Fruit Farm located in Cutchogue, a rural hamlet on Long Island, New York. This family operation dates back to the 1600s and is identified as a historic and bicentennial farm, one of the oldest continually cultivated farms in the country. He is also a graduate of Cornell, having received his BS, MS, and PhD in Soil and Water Engineering from the university. 

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After working in agriculture all over the world, I can honestly say there’s no place like home. My family’s Long Island fruit farm has been in operation for over 70 years, and multiple generations have made a living farming off our 200 acres of land. If there’s one lesson my family has learned in our years in this area, it is that working with, not against, this unique landscape can make a farmer’s job easier.

Most Long Island topsoil is very sandy and this land trait often spikes one of our largest costs—fertilizer. But this doesn’t have to happen.

Farmers use fertilizer for three key ingredients—phosphorus, potassium, and nitrogen. Because phosphorus and potassium stick to Long Island soil, farms in this area are rarely devoid of these two nutrients. Nitrogen, however, is an element that local farmers tend to worry about, and many end up wasting time and money ensuring that their crops are not lacking. I used to do the exact same thing until I discovered Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Suffolk County’s Agricultural Stewardship Program and learned several simple changes I could make to reduce my workload, lower my costs, and improve the way I cared for my land.

The first was timing. Many local farmers apply additional nitrogen fertilizer in the spring, as insurance against potential leaching and runoff. But I learned that the trick is to apply one-quarter of your fertilizer in spring, the majority in summer, and a third application in the fall, if necessary. This technique prevents wasting large amounts of fertilizer in the spring and helps provide consistent nutrients throughout the year.

The second technique I adopted was the use of controlled release nitrogen fertilizer. In this type of fertilizer, 75 percent of the total nitrogen is controlled release while 25 percent is a blend of conventional fertilizer. When applied, the conventional fertilizer in the blend is available upfront while the controlled release portion is gradually released based on soil temperatures. This ensures that the nitrogen needed for the crop is protected against potential leaching and runoff. Unlike conventional nitrogen fertilizer, you only need to apply the controlled release form once a year at planting, ultimately helping you use less, save more, and reduce the tractor time and effort that you put into split application fertilizing.

I learned that there are long-term benefits to using these techniques, particularly for the health of my family and community. 

Through the Stewardship Program, I also learned that there are long-term benefits to using these techniques, particularly for the health of my family and community. When we apply too much nitrogen fertilizer, it leaches right through our soil and ends up in our water source—contaminating irrigation and domestic resources and potentially leading to health problems. Because of the way our groundwater moves underground, if one area is contaminated, it can spread and take many years to cleanse the area’s sole source aquifer.

Incorporating these techniques is something that some other Long Island farmers are also doing with the assistance of CCE’s Agricultural Stewardship Program and similar groups. We’ve all experienced tough times lately, and saving a few bucks or a few hours is always beneficial. What we have here is a unique opportunity to work with our land, improve our operations, and protect the health of our community. For me, these are rare opportunities that we shouldn’t pass up.