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Les Henry: Mourning the loss of the International Plant Nutrition Institute

Information will be lost with the end of this valuable organization

To my great disappointment I recently learned of the impending demise of the International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI), an organization funded by primary producers of fertilizer products. IPNI was involved in a wide array of activities to further the efficient and effective use of fertilizers to keep farms profitable and to feed the people of the world.

My experience with IPNI goes back to my very early days in the agricultural industry when it was called the Potash Institute. The Canadian director of the Potash Institute was Dr. Ken Pretty. Ken was an Ontario farm boy and was widely traveled with his work on potash. As a young and struggling graduate student I recall Ken taking time to come to the basement labs where graduate students were slaving away. He just came to see how we were doing and offer encouragement.

In 1997 the Potash Institute was expanded to become the Potash and Phosphate Institute. During those years I remember the famous Dr. Jim Beaton as a very significant force in PPI. For me the bible of soil fertility is still the 4th edition of Soil Fertility and Fertilizers by Sam Tisdale, Werner Nelson, and Jim Beaton. All of them were involved with PPI or the Sulfur Institute.

In 2000, it became the International Plant Nutrition Institute. Throughout the many decades these institutes have provided scientifically based, practical information to further the efficient use of fertilizers.

One of the major pieces of work of IPNI in recent decades was to assemble and summarize soil test data throughout North America. The IPNI was the neutral body that was trusted by private soil testing labs. They used their very extensive database to provide state- and province-wide statistics about the status of available nutrients, surveying soil every five years to track changes. Summary data was available on IPNI’s website, so users could make custom maps.

The last such summary of data was produced in 2015 but sadly there will not be another.

When the Saskatchewan Soil Testing Lab operated from 1966 to 1994 we had very good provincial statistics on soil nutrients based on soil association and texture and administrative districts like agricultural representative districts.

Now that public soil testing labs are a thing of the past, the services provided by IPNI will be greatly missed. The needs of farmers and our industry will not be served as well without IPNI.

The IPNI website was a wealth of information and interpretive data about all things soil fertility and plant nutrition. They published and updated tables of nutrient removal and uptake by various crops throughout the world. They had an extensive library of classic photos of plant nutrient deficiency symptoms. It was the interpretation, integration and application of the information that made it useful.

We can publish refereed scientific journals until the cows come home but without some of that information being boiled down to something useful it’ll rest comfortably in academia, seldom used.

Better crops with plant food

This is the cover of the last issue of Better Crops with Plant Food. It is very timely when we are reviewing what we know about fertilizer phosphorus and how to maximize agricultural use and minimize impact to surface water bodies.
photo: IPNI

One of the many services that IPNI and predecessors provided was the publication of Better Crops with Plant Food. This publication included data from universities, government services and other research organizations in a form usable by farmers and professionals.

That valuable publication started in 1923, with the title Better Crops. In 1927 it merged with another publication and became Better Crops with Plant Food. It has maintained that title continuously from 1927 to 2019 — 92 years! How many publications have that kind of record? Even Grainews is only 44.

Back issues are available on the IPNI website. They are archived by year and are very easy to access and download. If this digitally challenged old fossil can do it almost anyone can.

Some of the earlier versions are small, with small file sizes. When the 1990s came along and the publication was larger, file size for download was a problem for a very short time. In recent issues the website versions have been posted at low resolution to keep the file size manageable and the download still readable.

Issue 2014 No. 4 was pivotal for me. It included a paper coauthored by Johnny Johnston from the famous Rothamsted Research Institute in the U.K. and Paul Fixen with IPNI. They used research plots from England and U.S. state-wide data to show that phosphorus fertilization can be made much simpler than we formerly thought. We now think of phosphorus as a long-term item, rather than a one-year fix. This was the basis of a Grainews column I wrote not long ago.

I started soils work as an undergraduate student in 1960 when fertilizer use was just beginning in this part of the world. I have recently downloaded the issues from 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2010. I have stopped to open selected issues and rarely come across am issue without at least one article I wanted to stop and read. These archived publications may end up on another website but I do not intend to take any chances. It is my intention to download all of them.

Gavin Sulewski has been the editor of this publication for the past eight years. Gavin is a Paddockwood, Sask., farm boy and an MSc grad of soil science from the University of Saskatchewan. Thanks Gavin for your good work. We are very proud of you.

Mergers and Acquisitions

I recently attended a seminar at the University of Saskatchewan and learned that we have no phosphate fertilizer manufacturing facilities in Western Canada.

From my way of thinking that it is quite scary. In recent times we find much political interference and bickering about what crosses borders. Tariffs are one issue, but even more concerning are non-tariff trade barriers such as what appears to be happening with our canola industry.

I am also concerned by the concentration taking place in the ag input industry. Hardly a season goes by without A buying up B and merging with C to the point that a very few very large corporations are controlling many of the inputs that we need to keep viable in farming.

Let us hope it all turns out well. We have seen rosy times for many years. I repeat my warning: beware the other side of the average.

About the author

Columnist

J.L.(Les) Henry is a former professor and extension specialist at the University of Saskatchewan. He farms at Dundurn, Sask. He recently finished a second printing of “Henry’s Handbook of Soil and Water,” a book that mixes the basics and practical aspects of soil, fertilizer and farming. Les will cover the shipping and GST for “Grainews” readers. Simply send a cheque for $50 to Henry Perspectives, 143 Tucker Cres., Saskatoon, Sask., S7H 3H7, and he will dispatch a signed book.

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