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Amid the millions of acres seeded to wheat in Alberta this year, a couple dozen small plots at Olds stand out.
That’s because those plots hold the potential to improve future crops — by increasing yields while reducing fertilizer inputs.
The Olds College Centre for Innovation (OCCI) is growing the red spring wheat as part of field trials for Blackstone Agriculture Inc., an Ontario company that’s marketing humic acid products.
Those products, said Blackstone business management director Kathleen Kauth, have already produced favourable results for the farmers who have tried them. Now it’s looking to OCCI and the University of Guelph for documented proof.
Paul Tiege, a sustainable agriculture and environmental scientist at OCCI, said 24 plots of wheat were planted: some with no fertilizer, some with conventional levels of fertilizer (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium), and others with lower levels of fertilizer.
The third group also received Blackstone’s proprietary humic acid blends — both as a granular addition at the time of seeding and as a foliar spray after the plants were developing.
Until the plots are harvested and their yields compared, OCCI can’t draw any conclusions, said Tiege. But the treatments do appear to be having an impact.
“One thing we’re able to tell already is that the test plots that have been treated with the Blackstone products show increased tillering,” he said, referring to the process by which wheat plants produce their seed-bearing heads.
“Subjectively it’s looking pretty good.”
But, Tiege cautioned, the effects of the increased tillering won’t really be known until harvest.
“What we don’t know yet is if we’re making more smaller seeds.”
If it turns out that the Blackstone products do increase yields with reduced fertilizer, the potential benefits for farmers are obvious.
Kauth is optimistic. She said it’s long been known that humic acid promotes plant growth.
“It’s been researched for a couple hundred years, actually — in the lab.
“It’s not necessarily secret, but it’s certainly not mainstream yet.”
Kauth said humic acid conditions the soil so plant roots can more easily absorb nutrients.
It also increases microbial activity, helps optimize pH levels, promotes water retention and improves soil structure, she added.
A further appeal of humic acid is that it’s a naturally occurring substance, so can even be used on certified organic crops, said Kauth.
“We’re not working with genetics; we’re not working with different chemicals. It’s literally working with nature.”
For now, it’s a waiting game — at least until harvest time at OCCI.