Getting It Right With the 4Rs

Griffin Fertilizer Forum Promotes Crop Nutrient Stewardship

story and photo by PAUL CATALA

In elementary school, children are taught the 3 R’s — reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. But in agriculture, it’s the 4Rs that are important – the right source, right rate, right time and right place.

  • Right source: Match the fertilizer type to the specific crop.
  • Right rate: Match the amount of fertilizer needed for that specific crop.
  • Right time: Ensure nutrients and fertilizers are available when crops can best absorb them.
  • Right place: Apply nutrients and fertilizers where the crops have access to them.

Known as the best way to promote crop nutrient stewardship, the 4Rs help balance the goals of the farmer, the industry and the government. They help improve on-farm economics, crop productivity and fertilizer efficiency while preserving and maintaining the surrounding environment. 


It’s the 4Rs that recently brought together some of Florida’s top names in agriculture to discuss and emphasize their importance. Among the reasons to implement the 4Rs are that managed fertilizers support cropping systems that provide economic, social and environmental benefits. Poorly managed nutrient applications can drive down profit, promote a loss of soil nutrients and reduce water and air quality.


The 4R discussion at Griffin Fertilizer in Frostproof was hosted by Griffin Fertilizer Vice President Mike Roberts. He was joined by Michelle Miller, an Archer-based writer, ag influencer and public speaker known as “The Farm Babe”; Glenn and Mark Beck of Beck Brothers Citrus Inc. in Windermere; David Royal, a seventh-generation Floridian and nutrient stewardship program manager for The Nature Conservancy; Mary Hartney, president of the Florida Fertilizer & Agrochemical Association; and Robert Watson, fertilizer division sales representative for Ben Hill Griffin Inc. in Frostproof. 


Roberts, who’s been with Griffin for 10 years, says he met Miller through Facebook and invited her to join the forum. Miller explained how she became “The Farm Babe” with about 200,000 followers and whose ag-related columns reach on social media reach 2 – 3 million viewers per month. She grew up on Wisconsin farms and started “The Farm Babe” ag advocacy website in 2014.


“My goal is to take the science behind farming and food and make it digestible to the average consumer,” she says. “We’ve got to move our messages about agriculture forward, and that’s also a goal.”


Spreading awareness of the 4Rs is one way to make that move, particularly in regard to becoming self-sufficient farmers, adds Glenn Beck, who recently became president of Florida Citrus Mutual. 


“You have to be willing to roll the dice; there’s no guarantees. I wish people would realize it all can’t come from somewhere else,” he adds. “That may be good for some things, but food shouldn’t be one of them.”


As for Florida citrus, according to the USDA, in 2019-2020 there were about 400,000 acres of citrus-bearing groves with more than 53 million citrus trees in the state. Royal discusses the impact of the freezes between 1980 and 1985 that “forever moved citrus north of I-4 to south of there.” He says the 4Rs allow those farmers to grow more with less and to protect the environment, helping improve and protect water quality even as citrus greening continues to adversely impact groves.


“We have a patient on life support, and every day we’re doing what we can to keep that patient alive,” he says.


Royal gave the group a slide presentation focusing on Florida water quality problems driven by population growth. He also discussed Senate Bill 712, passed in June of last year, that is designed to protect Florida’s water resources by minimizing the sources of nutrient pollution. It’s tied into the 4Rs because its implementation helps address water-quality issues and objectives.


“Ag is a work in progress. Florida farmers are often multi-generational. My goal is to continue that family heritage,” Royal says. “I’ve got to take care of the land because the land takes care of me.”


According to the University of Florida Institute of Agricultural Sciences, the 4Rs are a simple management concept that can help growers implement appropriate management practices for fertilizer application. That, in turn, will enhance the sustainability of agriculture. 


Currently, growers are required to provide nutrient application records to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services every two years as a result of SB712.


Prior to concluding the forum, the attendees describe some of the facets of the 4Rs that they’ve found beneficial and regularly implement. Glenn Beck says the practice helps promote “sustainability” and “longevity” while helping prevent abuse of land stewardship resources.


“You won’t find a better group of stewards than ag people – 99 percent of them are genuinely concerned,” he says. “They’re trying to get peak performance with the lowest impact possible.”


The Florida 4R Certification Program launched in January 2020. The state was the third in the United States to implement the program.

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