Harnessing the Sun for On-farm Fertilizer Production

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2009: $159,023.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: Western
State: Colorado
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Jessica Davis
Colorado State University

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Fruits: melons
  • Vegetables: beans, beets, broccoli, cabbages, carrots, cauliflower, cucurbits, eggplant, garlic, greens (leafy), onions, peas (culinary), peppers, radishes (culinary), tomatoes, turnips


  • Crop Production: nutrient cycling, organic fertilizers
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer, focus group, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research, workshop
  • Energy: energy conservation/efficiency, energy use, solar energy
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, budgets/cost and returns, feasibility study, market study
  • Natural Resources/Environment: carbon sequestration
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture
  • Soil Management: organic matter, nutrient mineralization, soil microbiology, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: employment opportunities, sustainability measures

    Proposal abstract:

    Modern agriculture is highly dependent on fertilizer made through energy-intensive industrial nitrogen (N) fixation. As energy prices and input costs increase, so does the price of fertilizer. Recently, high demand has led to fertilizer shortages, yet even more N fertilizer is needed to meet the demands of our crowded and hungry world. Biological N-fixation using cyanobacteria has the potential to supply N to crops while reducing input costs and increasing the energy efficiency of N-fixation. Additionally, a distributed, on-farm fertilizer production system might provide additional benefits, including reduced transport, reduced carbon emissions, lower input costs, diversified income sources for farmers and employment opportunities in rural communities. Our project goal is to develop and test such an on-farm biological N-fixation system. The primary scientific components of the project include development and optimization of cyanobacteria-based N-fixation, on-farm field-testing through participatory research and economic analysis of production and application. Education, collaborative design and outreach will also be emphasized, due to the unconventional nature of the system. Extension fact sheets, field demonstrations, a webcast (recorded and available via the Internet), newsletter articles, journal articles and presentations are all planned in order to raise awareness and educate producers and other professionals regarding new techniques. We will evaluate short-term outcomes of improved understanding and awareness by documenting our ability to produce and utilize cyanobacterial biofertilizer. In the medium-term, we will document the number of farmers and others that participate in field days and other presentations and will quantify changes through pre- and post-tests. A new system to provide an additional N fertilizer source through cyanobacterial fixation has the potential to substantially reduce energy use in agriculture by decreasing the amount of energy required in the production and transport of fertilizer. This would, in turn, improve environmental sustainability and reduce greenhouse gas emissions while partially decoupling agriculture from rising energy and input costs. Lower costs can improve the profitability of farms, and new distributed technologies could provide employment and economic benefits to rural communities.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Our objectives are:

    *to evaluate cyanobacterial species and growth conditions necessary for biofertilizer production;

    *to evaluate the economic and social feasibility of on-farm or community-scale fertilizer production using a biological N-fixation system;

    *to optimize the harvesting, processing and application of cyanobacteria-fixed N through on-farm testing;

    *to inform the bioreactor design and utilization of biofertilizers through consultations with farmers; and

    *to develop educational materials providing information on the production and utilization of cyanobacteria-based N fertilizer and disseminate that information to farmers and agricultural professionals through a variety of means.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.