In Praise of Grassroots Ingenuity

August 21st, 2008
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My Open Range column from the August 2008 issue of Alberta Venture magazine:
How an Alberta farmer-inventor aims to break chemical fertilizer dependency and slash greenhouse-gas emissions at the same time
In the field of opportunity it’s plowing time again – Neil Young
Almost since the first plot of sod was turned on the Prairies, farmers have lusted to break the stranglehold of the big agricultural suppliers. With today’s soaring fertilizer costs – driven by high natural gas and crude oil prices – some would love nothing better than to stick it to fertilizer manufacturers. An Alberta farmer from Cowley (near Pincher Creek) claims to have found a way to slash fertilizer costs, maintain or improve crop yields and dramatically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, all for about $30,000.
Inventor Gary Lewis’s system is conceptually simple: harness a tractor’s diesel engine exhaust and force it into the ground. Sounds bizarre, even disgusting – like polluting on purpose. But far from being some toxic brew, the byproducts of engine combustion are overwhelmingly water vapour, carbon dioxide (CO2), dinitrogen (N2) and nitrous oxides (NOx), plus waste heat and some particulates. Many farmers already do their seeding by using a mechanical air stream that blows seeds into a tiny soil furrow. Adding exhaust gas to the air stream apparently isn’t that difficult. Nor is it crazy.
As Lewis points out, any extra water is good for the soil, as is heat during our cold springs on the western plains. CO2 is crucial to plant life; when added to soil it stimulates root growth. NOx are the real prize. When spewed into the atmosphere, they can form urban smog. But to the crucial bacteria that inhabit the soil, NOx are like nectar. Farmers spend tens of thousands of dollars per season getting nitrogen into the soil using chemical fertilizers. Lewis’s N/C or “Bio-Agtive” system provides usable NOx in an environmentally friendly form virtually for free.
The N/C system cuts greenhouse-gas emissions in three ways. In addition to eliminating tractor exhaust emissions during seeding operations and cutting down on artificial fertilizers (the manufacture of which causes major emissions), it enables growing plants to take up and transform (at least temporarily) atmospheric CO2 at a stunning 10,000 pounds per seeded acre.
I thought N/C might stand for “No Carbon,” and Lewis’s years of costly tinkering have caused some to snigger that it means “No Charge.” It’s actually Nitrogen/Carbon, hence the corporate name, N/C Quest Inc. The system consists of about $15,000 worth of pipes, fittings and pumps, plus a further $15,000 licensing fee so Lewis can continue his research. The company has patents pending, and more than 50 farmers in Canada, the United States and Australia are trying it out. Preliminary tests by two retired Agriculture Canada PhDs have been promising but inconclusive. Research is continuing.
Lewis and his associates have also launched “CO2X,” which gets people concerned about climate change to “sponsor” – pay cash to – farmers who use N/C and other greenhouse-gas-reducing techniques. Purchasers thereby indirectly reduce their own carbon footprint in a kind of private, non-governmental Green Shift. Lewis & Co. go far in their global warming agitation, railing against industries which, among other things, supply Canada’s farmers with their beloved state-of-the-art, eight-wheeled tractors – plus the diesel to run them.
Advocates of government-enforced greenhouse-gas reductions will see Lewis’s work as clear vindication of their approach. Worth remembering, though: Lewis spent years on this thing before there was any prospect of government-mandated emissions caps or carbon taxes. He did it because he thinks it’s right and could work. His story is about human ingenuity exploiting the opportunities provided by a free society and surviving the free market’s Darwinian weeding out of bad ideas. Lewis could one day take his place among the agricultural innovators who’ve made life better for farmers and consumers alike.
Looking forward, I shudder at the massive public funds that will be wasted on innumerable absurd ideas as professional grant applicants shamelessly mine taxpayer-funded, bureaucratic schemes. In the meantime, hats off to N/C Quest. Lewis has intrigued not only this non-farming acreage boy but a great friend of mine who’s probably the cagiest grain farmer you’d ever meet. If it’s good enough for him, don’t be surprised if five years from now you no longer see black smoke belching from Prairie tractors.
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