The other day I watched and admired how fertilizer was applied to a fall wheat field with a truck on wide tires. The job didn’t take long. The method of spreading fertilizer has changed beyond recognition in the last 112 years. It used to be a time-consuming job that required hard work.
One of my earliest memories of helping my father on the farm in the late 1950s and early 1960s was driving our little grey Ford tractor. If it looked like a rain was coming, father wanted to get fertilizer on the pasture field early in the spring so the cows would have enough grass for the summer.
He’d put a few bags of fertilizer into a wash tub and spread it by hand from the back of a farm trailer. I was the driver. Back in those days the fields were small and spreading 10 or 15 bags of fertilizer before a rain was quite an achievement. But father was always in a foul mood when spreading fertilizer. His tractor driver was 10 or 12 years old and probably didn’t drive straight. Wind usually came up and father was covered in fertilizer dust. He’d yell for me to drive closer or farther away; never taking the time to show or explain things. He didn’t have patience for that kind of thing.
Father was a big believer in fertilizer, having used it in Holland. It was much easier than spreading manure. Our old-time Canadian neighbours scoffed at “the Hollander” for throwing money away on fertilizer. They didn’t believe in fertilizer or artificial insemination.
Giving grass or plants a quick fix of a fertilizer was much faster and more economical than hauling manure out to a field with a team of horses and a sleigh as the neighbours did. Manure was loaded by hand. And most of the farmers with a small acreage spread it by hand.
In the early 1900’s, fertilizers were in powder or crystalline form and difficult to spread evenly by hand or by horse-drawn spreaders.
Development of granulation and prilling began a revolution in fertilizer application.
Multi-nutrient compound fertilizers were introduced in the 1930s and greatly simplified fertilizer use by reducing the number of applications and helping ensure balanced nitrogen, phosphorus and potash use according to crop need.
Fritz Haber (1868-1934) was a German chemist and the father of fertilizer. In 1908, he discovered a way to tap into the atmosphere’s vast reservoir of nitrogen gas and convert it into compounds plants can use.
The innovation, called the Haber-Bosch process, produces liquid ammonia, the raw material for making nitrogen fertilizer. Karl Bosch, a German scientist, perfected the making of fertilizer in the 1930’s.
Not only was ammonia used as a raw material in the production of fertilizers, it was also essential in the production of nitric acid. Nitric acid is a raw material for the production of chemical high explosives and other ammunition necessary for the war.
Some researchers say Fritz Haber is responsible for more human births and deaths than anyone in history. And some refer to him as a monster. During the First World War Haber was Chief of the German chemical warfare service and he directed the chlorine gas attack at the second Battle of Ypres.
During the first decade of the twentieth century, the worldwide demand for nitrogen fertilizers exceeded the existing supply. The largest source of ammonia necessary for fertilizer production was found in a huge guano deposit (essentially sea bird droppings) that was 220 miles in length and five feet thick, located along the coast of Chile. These were such prized commodities that fortunes were made shipping bird and bat guano to Europe.
Scientists were concerned about this fast disappearing natural source of ammonia and nitrogenous compounds.
Haber invented a large-scale catalytic synthesis of ammonia from elemental hydrogen and nitrogen gas, reactants which are abundant and inexpensive. By using high temperature (around 500 C), high pressure (approximately 3,000 psi), and an iron catalyst, Haber could force relatively unreactive gaseous nitrogen and hydrogen to combine into ammonia. This furnished the essential precursor for many important substances, particularly fertilizers and explosives used in mining and warfare. The nitrogen had been pulled from the air and could be put into the ground to grow food. In 1909, he unveiled his discovery to the world.
The Haber process is one of the most important inventions of the 20th century.
Maynard van der Galien is a Renfrew-area farmer and newspaper columnist.