The Story of Nitrogen: a new podcast from the University of Minnesota Extension

by Greg Klinger


Nitrogen, a nutrient that’s essential for life, impacts us all but might not be something you think about unless it relates to your job.  Farmers constantly think about how their nitrogen fertilizer decisions can impact their crop yields, an agricultural scientist might think about the importance of nitrogen to the global food supply, conservationists might think about the impact of nitrogen on the life that exists in forests or bodies of water like the Gulf of Mexico.  Often, nitrogen is framed as a cause-and-effect, for example, how fertilizer added to a corn field or suburban lawn can impact a nearby lake or drinking well.  Another way to look at these issues, though, is through a lens of curiosity.  Why does extra nitrogen change life in a field, stream, lake, forest, or the ocean? Why is fine-tuning fertilizer rates so challenging in agriculture, and why do crop demands for nitrogen change so much from year to year?  Why do some trees grow faster with more nitrogen while others decline?  Can knowing more about these effects make us better scientists, agronomists, conservationists, and farmers?

These were the types of questions that led to “The Story of Nitrogen”, a new audio series produced by the University of Minnesota Extension.  The series takes a deep dive into agronomy, soils, and crop production, but also includes interviews with experts on Midwestern lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, eastern forests, and Minnesota geology to better understand the similarities and differences between these environments, why some places retain nitrogen while others lose it, and how this influences life in those environments.  During these conversations, we explore how weather impacts nitrogen, how different microbes in soil and water respond to changes in their nitrogen supply, and how time influences nitrogen movement and water quality trends.  Along the way, we also discuss things that on first glance would appear to be unrelated to nitrogen in the environment: road salt, invasive earthworms, nuclear testing from the 1950s, geological layer cakes, and even “I Love Lucy”.

This series offers an opportunity to dig deeper into how nitrogen behaves across diverse environments, behaviors that may explain things you witness every day.  Whether you’re observing how the species of trees change while on a walk through the forest, fishing for bass among the lily pads, watching the plants in your yard or garden grow or die, or trying to diagnose an issue in a corn field, nitrogen can help explain a fundamental question we’re all curious about: Why am I seeing what I'm seeing?

You can find The Story of Nitrogen on the U of M Extension site or wherever you listen to podcasts, with new episodes released weekly starting Monday, October 25th.