By Christine Hunt
"With agriculture there are always challenges," said Charles Wortmann, soil fertility nutrient management specialist in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Department of Agronomy and Horticulture. In the next 30 years or so, the amount of agricultural commodities needed will double, he said. "Part of it is because of population growth around the world but it's also because of rising standards of living," Wortmann said. For instance, in China, population growth is actually declining but the standard of living is increasing. An increased standard of living results in more consumption, which creates a demand for more production, he said.
The challenge for the future will be managing the use of natural resources such as soil and water so the resources are not depleted or permanently damaged. "We have to keep in mind that we need practices that allow us to maintain our production while being sustainable and not just locally or in the field, but globally," he said.
Wortmann has years of experience and first-hand knowledge of farming practices in many parts of the world, especially Africa: Ethiopia, Uganda and Mozambique. After earning his bachelor's degree, he spent two years in Tanzania. He returned to the U.S. to earn his master's degree, returned to Africa for five years, earned his doctorate in the U.S., and then returned to spend 12 years in Uganda. While in Uganda, Wortmann worked with the Center for International Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), focusing on conducting agronomic and soils research. Recently, Wortmann did a short-term assignment with the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa, a Gates Foundation funded program, with activities throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
Based on his experience in other countries, Wortmann believes that Nebraska has great resources for agricultural production compared to other parts of world, where the resources can be much more fragile.
Increased Production Through Research
Wortmann looks for research opportunities with multiple benefits, such as the efficient use of nitrogen fertilizers. Nitrogen fertilizers are produced using fossil fuels, which emit carbon dioxide and are a finite global resource. "If we can use less nitrogen and use it more efficiently, it means less emission of carbon dioxide," said Wortmann. His recent work on nitrogen fertilizer management for high-yield corn found that high yield levels, 240 - 250 bushels per acre, can be achieved while using nitrogen fertilizer much more efficiently than researchers have been able to achieve at lower yield levels.
This efficiency is the result of different technologies coming together, said Wortmann. "First of all, it would be on irrigated land in order that the crop has enough water that it doesn't come under stress; it means the water use has to be efficient... very well-managed water usage efficiency to avoid leaching of nutrients from the soil." It means having a hybrid of good genetics in the field, good soil management and good crop management all the way through, Wortmann added. "It's different specialists working on different elements of this that enable us to continue to advance our technology."
Collaboration in Research
Wortmann works primarily with corn, soybean and sorghum research and believes it's important to get research results distributed quickly to producers, the agribusiness community and natural resource management agencies. "When we get this information quickly to farmers, we continue to see increased production in what we think is a sustainable manner," he said.
Wortmann has collaborative relationships with Iowa State, Kansas State and the University of Missouri on water quality and climate change issues.
He explained that collaboration and research is important locally, but also globally. "The new information and techniques can be applied where there are food deficits," he said, adding that producers have the capacity to help meet those needs. "The research, getting the information out to producers quickly, in addition to the teaching component, has a big impact." To illustrate his point, Wortmann cites a study by Battelle, an independent consultant in Columbus, Ohio, that concluded the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln annually returns at least $15 in benefits to Nebraskans for every dollar of state support. Those benefits come back to Nebraska in jobs, economic growth and the ability to maintain the state's high standard of living. According to Wortmann, in 2005, the State of Nebraska invested about $75 million. The impact is estimated to be about 1.1 billion dollars per year.
Funding Future Research
Research funding comes from a variety of sources, but Wortmann's is mainly from federal sources such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Agency for International Agriculture (USAID). However, state funding pays salaries and provides some operating funds, he said. Other funds come from commodity boards, such as the Nebraska Soybean Board and the Nebraska Corn Board, with additional funds from industry sources.
Nebraska Initiatives, Global Opportunities
According to Wortmann, the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska will benefit irrigated and rain fed agricultural production in Nebraska, but also has tremendous potential for other countries.
"Ethiopia is investing quite a lot in irrigation technology and expanding their capacity for irrigation. But they realize they lack the experience- and we are so strong in that- not just the water management, the irrigation management, but producing the crops and managing the soils under those irrigated situations," said Wortmann. "I think great things are happening. I always wish we could do more."
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