Chemical fertilizers were developed as early as the 1840s in Germany, but most Nebraska farmers used manure from farm animals, gypsum, ground animal bones and crop residue to fertilize their fields. Because of the hot temperatures and lack of rainfall, this organic fertilizer did not soak into the soil, so it did not help the crops very much. Kenneth Jackson said 1934 was the worst year for dry weather in York County. "The ground was so hard you couldn't plow it," he says.
Nitrogen is one nutrient needed by plants; phosphorus is another. Some farmers put dry phosphate or potash on their fields as fertilizer. Herman Goertzen remembers using dry fertilizer that was 33 percent nitrite and was shipped in bulk sacks in a railroad car. "We'd unload those and take them home; and it was dry so you had to have a mechanism to dribble it into the ground with your cultivator," he says.
Commercially produced fertilizer was expensive and not widely used until after World War II. But then, as this chart shows, usage took off. Walter Schmitt remembers the time before fertilizers were widespread (no pun intended) and the changes that have come since.
Today, more than 98 percent of the U.S. farmland planted in corn is fertilized.
Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.