Hungry for Truth Crop Nutrients + Farm Sustainability

Fueling Your Food: How Farmers Sustainably Use Crop Nutrients To Grow Healthy Plants

If you’ve ever helped your kids with their science homework or cared for a plant, you might think that crops just need soil, water and sunlight to survive. While true, it turns out they really thrive with 17 essential elements. Three come from air and water, while the rest are absorbed through the soil.

That’s why fertilizers play such an essential role in farming. They provide the elements needed to grow healthy plants in the field. South Dakota farmers understand the balance and use technology to apply the nutrients in sustainable ways. Let’s explore three of the foundational elements, how they contribute to plant health and what technology farmers use to protect and improve the environment.


Nitrogen is considered the most important element for growing healthy plants. It’s essential to creating protein, helping plants grow and it accounts for 80 percent of the air we breathe. Nitrogen is a big contributor to making food nutritious.

Unlike corn and wheat, soybeans create their own nitrogen. Soybeans and other legume crops have a special ability to transfer nitrogen from the air to the soil. Just like you might use a probiotic to improve your digestion, soybeans work with bacteria in the soil to convert nitrogen into the fuel they need to grow. For crops that can’t create their own, farmers apply nitrogen fertilizer in the form of a liquid, solid or gas.


This element helps plants use and store energy. It also aids in photosynthesis and contributes to normal development. The phosphorus used in most farm fertilizers comes from phosphate rock, but it can also come in a liquid form.


Potassium helps plants resist diseases, activates enzymes and improves its overall quality. It also protects the crop in cold or dry weather and helps to build a strong root system. Potassium is typically applied as a solid.

Hungry for Truth Crop Nutrients + Farm Sustainability

Sustainable Applications

How do farmers know how much of which nutrients they need to use to grow corn, soybeans and other crops? Through the results of research conducted by scientists at universities and ag businesses. Many farmers work with local experts who help them take soil samples from their fields, analyze the results, recommend products and create digital soil maps.

Farmers load those maps into the software in their tractors and precisely apply the right mix of nutrients per crop, per acre. This helps them minimize waste and fuels a healthy growing season. It also means they’re making continuous improvements on their family farms to do what’s right for the environment. Leaving the land in better condition for future generations.

Who knew farmers had to pay so much attention to chemistry and the environment? Here’s a look at more farm technology that helps John Horter be sustainable in the field.