Until recently I never gave it much thought, but there are a lot of disagreements launched between individuals, organizations, andGlass-of-water other entities that are rooted around “progress.” It’s somewhat ironic that such a happy and positive word is the cause of so many negative vibes.

The reasons, as I see it, are three-fold. First is simply a general subjective disagreement about what direction defines progress…new health care system vs. current system, big farm vs. small farm, designated hitter vs. pitcher hits. You get the idea.

The second reason why progress elicits so many disagreements is the fear of the unknown and how to deal with the ramifications of change. For example, cell phones are convenient but we know more people will be killed on the highway because users are dialing or talking rather than watching the road. So, do we eliminate cell phones to negate the problem or do we simply try to solve the problem while allowing the cell phone craze to continue?

This second reason also applies to transgenic crops. Take a plant, insert a resistance gene(s), determine the economic value, and call it progress; which, of course, it is. The rub lies in the fact that this progress creates the potential for new problems…resistant pests and cross-pollination with normal plants. Given this reality, the line is drawn between those who want to avoid the problems by stopping the use of transgenics and those who choose to manage the technology so potential risks are minimized.

Finally, disagreements about progress are centered on how quickly, or slowly, it occurs. These are the classic cases of “Is the glass half empty or half full?” I recently got into such a discussion regarding agriculture’s ability to manage nutrients being applied to the land base. Effectively, the agricultural community was charged with not doing enough to clean-up ground and surface water problems. To be sure, there are still problems and plenty of room for improvement; but the glass isn’t empty.

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (WDATCP) reported in 2012 that nearly 2 million acres of Wisconsin crop land was being operated under a nutrient management plan. This compares to only 0.2 million total acres in 2000. Over 50 percent of the crop land in Fond du Lac County is now operated under a nutrient management plan; only 5% was under a plan in 2000.

Over applications of manure and commercial fertilizer through the years has resulted in high levels of phosphorus (P) being banked in the soil. Fond du Lac County soil summaries from all samples submitted to state certified soil testing labs show a rise in soil test P from 31 parts per million (ppm) in the mid-1970’s to 52 ppm in the mid-1990’s. This level is far above that needed for maximizing yields of any commonly grown field crop. Since the mid-1990’s, county soil test P levels have stabilized and begun to decline, indicating a better job is being done of matching nutrient applications to crop needs. This same trend exists statewide.

In the mid-1980’s, over 150 tons of P fertilizer was annually used on Wisconsin crop fields. The average annual P fertilizer consumption in the past five years is 77 tons. Data from the USDA shows that 98-99% of corn acres received P fertilizer applications in the mid-1980’s. In 2005 (the most recent year for which this data was available), 84% of corn acres received P fertilizer applications. Further, average rates have decreased from near 50 to 37 pounds per acre during the same period.

So, is the glass half empty or half full? Is progress being made? We need to remember that there is a strong dilution effect with biological systems. It generally takes time to mess things up, and it takes time to fix them. Although we would like life to give us nothing but a full glass, sometimes we need to realize that progress is made as long as we keep pouring.

Mike Rankin, Crops and Soils Agent, UW Extension-Fond du Lac County

Stuff you can do with this post