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Benefits of Organic vs. Non-Organic Fertilizers

Early in my ownership of our organic fertilizer company, Ohio Earth Food, the founder of the company told me that one of the world’s most renowned turf consultants lived nearby. The marketing gland in my brain sparked both a jolt of energy for learning how to market our fertilizers to golf course superintendents, and a feeling of regret as well, for not having done it yet! I am quite sure I spend nearly as much time pondering mistakes as I do pursuing opportunities.

Months later, a gentleman rushed into our office needing a copy of the label for a product that we sell. He introduced himself and I suddenly recognized his name as the renowned turf consultant. I threw out my best pitch as to why he should let me take him to lunch to pick his brain and he quickly fired back with what to him was simple common sense, but to me were pearls of wisdom that were slipping through my fingers. He said I should be selling my organic fertilizer to golf courses as a dormant feeding because the microbes in the soil can break it down in lower temperatures. This revelation was all I could cram into short term memory on the spot and I didn’t want to seem like a rookie by grabbing a pencil and asking him to repeat. After putting in several calls and emails to him, that is all I was left with. Believe me, I used that line on more than a few sales calls. It was incomplete, but I could say it with confidence due to its source.

Well the year went on and our organic fruit and vegetable grower customers kept us plenty busy throughout the spring. Then when summertime came, I began to put my marketing plan for golf course superintendents into action based on that single gem from the turf consultant. I started networking on social media and was asked to write this article. Within ten minutes of diving in, I realized that I needed the rest of the story from my soon-to-be mentor on why organic fertilizer makes for the best dormant feeding. I finally got the gentleman on the phone and drove over to his home for the 30 minutes that he had for me. He spoke very quickly and passionalty, but the fact that the visit turned into two hours let me know that he loves what he does and loves teaching others about the miracles of soil. This time I was shameless, took notes, and I believe I can convey this to you.

Let me start by saying that I find it peculiar that in farming we are told that the much newer method of using synthetically created nitrogen and other man-made fertilizers is called “conventional” while the centuries-old method of using plant and animal-based products for fertilizers is deemed “organic.” The definition of organic according to Dictionary.com is “pertaining to, or derived from living organisms,” and conventional is described as “conforming or adhering to accepted standards, as of conduct or taste.” How did the use of chemical fertilizers become the standard? I believe we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard, and that the natural, organic way is much closer to the original design and intent.

We don’t know exactly when growers started using compost and manure to fertilize soil, but I am sure it was long before the Native Americans showed settlers how to put dead fish in the ground when planting corn. The use of synthetic or “conventional” fertilizers can be traced all the way back to, well, just before World War I, in 1909. The Haber process allowed fixation of nitrogen from the atmosphere into a usable form. Man could now quickly use heat and pressure to do what could only previously be done by lightening or by enzymes and bacteria in the relatively slow process of digestion and decomposition.

So why would one want to use a fertilizer that relies on the slow hand of nature to deliver N, P and K, when for less money and more potent doses you could use chemical fertilizers that have seemingly trapped lightening in a bottle, or bag in this case?

I am admittedly biased here, but to me it is the same reason that the masters and icons of auto design — Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche and BMW — still make the overwhelming majority of their performance cars without the use of turbo or superchargers. These two artificial aspirating systems are completely legal and undoubtedly boost power but are not consistently used because the costs of disrupting the traditional cycle of an internal combustion engine sometimes outweigh the benefits. In the automotive world, the price you pay is uneven power delivery and excess heat. There is a very similar situation in our soil. There are consequences for trying to overpower the natural nutrient cycling of the microbes in the soil with cheap, high-power fertilizer.

The importance of microbes in the soil continues to take the forefront of discussions in “conventional” and organic agronomy. The shocking number of microbes in our soil performs crucial and often taken-for-granted tasks, such as cementing soil aggregates to reduce erosion, regulating and changing the form of grass clippings and fertilizers into those that a plant can use through mineralization and creating humus or organic matter, which will hold more water and nutrients in the root zone. Another benefit of soil microbes is their ability to degrade pest control chemicals and other hazardous materials.

Chemical fertilizers, like a turbo charger, dramatically increase the amount of inputs into the system at a lower cost. The microbes, which, like it or not are in charge of the health of your turf, cannot process this increased level of nutrients, especially at lower temperatures in the dormant season. The first negative result is that the Carbon to Nitrogen (C:N) ratio falls as microbes attempt to break down the deluge of Nitrogen without added Carbon for energy. The microbes can then become anaerobic and the precious Nitrogen volatilizes into Ammonia and leaves the soil.

Organic fertilizers on the other hand, supply Carbon for the microbes and offer the Nitrogen and other nutrients in a slow release package that the microbes can handle. With organic fertilizers, nutrients are processed efficiently and totally, which lends to much less risk of plant burn and environmental damage from run off or leaching. Some of the Nitrogen is available right away, some is given off by the microbes as the organic compounds of the fertilizer are consumed, and some is stored in the microbes for future release when they die. Heat is created from this increased activity and the root feeding season is extended later in the fall and start up earlier in the spring.

There is even more good news. Many organic fertilizers include other micro and trace nutrients from humic acid and seaweed, which like a multi-vitamin in your diet, can make the other nutrients more available and release defensive hormones and stimulate growth. These values are often not included in a cost per acre or cost per lb. of nitrogen analysis.

A potentially negative effect of long-term use of ammonia-based chemical fertilizers is the soil’s reduction in pH due to ammonia oxidation. This can cause significant reductions in populations of bacteria and actinomycetes with simultaneous increases of fungal plant pathogens. By comparison organic fertilizers introduce new microbes to the soil, primarily positive as pathogens are killed off in the composting process, and enhance the diversity of soil organisms to better compete with pests and transform plant nutrients. This is especially important in a root zone as homogenous as golf course turf.

An inferior engine can produce equal power with the addition of a turbo or super charger, and grass or plants can green up well with chemical fertilizers. But both really are a “fix” that needs to be continuously fed. Because the roots were not fed along with the foliage, they cannot support the rampant top growth above them, and slowly the turf weakens and declines making it an easy target for insects and disease that would require more costly chemicals.

Like a highly engineered, well made and normally- tuned aspirated engine, an organically fed lawn will handle stress better and require less additional services to continue to perform. By bettering the soil environment you will increase the population and diversity of beneficial microbes that will symbiotically feed more nutrients and fight off disease and pests in your turf. To increase microbial activity in a soil you must make the environment optimal by aeration, moisture, monitoring pH, and above all providing the organic fertilizer needed to fuel the population. Like a Ferrari V-8, it is about doing things well, the traditional way, and not looking for a cheap fix.

Ted Stutz of Ohio Earth Food can be reached at 330-877-9356 or email – ted.stutz@ohioearthfood.com. Author’s Note: Many of these facts and ideas were taken from Soil Microbiology FAQ’s and borrowed from David A. Zuberer – soil microbiologist at Texas A&M University. For more info visit www.ohioearthfood.com.

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