- Agronomic: corn
- Crop Production: nutrient cycling
- Education and Training: demonstration, farmer to farmer, focus group, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research
- Farm Business Management: market study
- Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, public participation, sustainability measures
Even with the use of cover crops, most farmers are in need of adding nitrogen to their fields. Nitrogen fertilizer options and correlating costs vary radically and are driven by crop type, soil needs, agricultural practice and accessibility. Every farmer I spoke with in Oregon faces rising fertilizer costs. Small- and medium-sized farmers, committed to organic or sustainable practices, are particularly vulnerable.
There is one fertilizer that could alleviate farmers’ vulnerability to price volatility, a nitrogen source certain to increase with population growth, and that is human urine. According to the World Health Organization and numerous scientific institutions, urine can provide complete nutrition for plants. Its composition of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium is very similar to commercial fertilizer, and these nutrients are bioavailable. Urine also contains beneficial micronutrients, essential for plant growth, but usually missing in synthetic fertilizers. Once capture, treatment and application logistics are stabilized, human urine could provide a consistently priced fertility option.
Environmental benefits of urine range from reducing demand on finite phosphorus supplies and transportation costs and emissions associated with synthetic fertilizers, to reducing inflow load and energy demand at wastewater treatment facilities. Urine diverting toilets can capture this nutrient at the source, eliminating contamination and energy intensive strategies for nutrient removal later down the pipeline.
Health and safety concerns have guided our dependence on disposal-based sanitation and increased our reliance on synthetic based fertilizers. But other countries are diverging from these energy intensive and environmentally damaging solutions. Human urine, essentially sterile if captured at the source with the use of urinals and urine diverting toilets, is a distinctly different resource than biosolids. In case of any contamination, full pathogen removal can be achieved.
We can establish safe, appropriate methods for capture and treatment. The greater questions are: will producers be willing to use this fertilizer and will consumers accept products grown with such fertilization. This project will employ a number of engagement strategies to compel a dialogue on human urine. The underlying objective is to move the participants’ attitudes beyond the “ick” factor to a more meaningful consideration of urine as a valuable resource. Participants, representing the full spectrum of our food system from producers to distributors and certifiers to consumers, will be invited to partake in this inquiry.
The Natural Fertilizer Market Assessment Project is a collaboration between the Principal Investigator (PI), Nicole Cousino, and five producers in Oregon. Each of the producers will have a demonstration test field at their farm. The exact crop to be grown will be determined collectively. Sterilized human urine will be compared with either synthetic or organic fertilizers, again to be determined by the participating farms.
The embedded value in human waste is unknown to many producers. The five field sites and field days, to be held at three of the farms, are intended to educate through practice. Informational brochures will be offered at each site and attendees will be encouraged to visit the project’s website. In fall and winter 2014, the PI and participating producers will present the field tests’ results and information on urine’s fertilizer potential at various sites and events. The presentations will be interactive, soliciting engagement with the attendees and, ideally, recommendations from them regarding distribution and application considerations that will best meet their needs. Producers will also be encouraged to take a survey that will be offered at events and available online.
To engage consumers in the question of human urine, the PI will convene three focus groups. The outcome of these sessions will inform the customer focused survey. This survey will be administered at a number of sites in the region, including farmers markets, and it will be available on the project’s website.
Project objectives from proposal:
- Validate that urine is a viable fertilizer.
- Identify opportunities and constraints for the use of urine in agriculture.
- Engage Oregon producers in a dialogue about human-derived fertility.
- Evaluate consumer support for urine fertilized produce.