I grew up in a small town in east-central Illinois.  Actually Hindsboro was bigger 20+ years ago, but I went to school in Oakland—another small town.  When I went to the University of Illinois, had to explain to some of my fellow freshmen that I could really get into the big U with a graduating class of 32!    We even had chemistry!   Who knew that one day–with a  History and English Teaching Degree–I’d be talking about Chemistry in Agriculture?  Well, Mr. Sullivan (my HS Chemistry Teacher!), this one is for you!!

October 16-22 marks National Chemistry Week!  Yes, you will find chemistry in Agriculture!   Not just the Arsenic (yes it IS an element! Symbol As; Atomic Weight 33) that Dr. Oz was talking about a couple of weeks ago!   The Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association has some excellent resources related to our three main chemicals related to agriculture N, P and K. 

As harvest continues across the state, you’ll soon notice many farmers incorporating nitrogen into their field in the form of anhydrous ammonia (NH3) and ammonium sulfate ([NH4]2SO4).  Farmers take special precautions when using these materials that are used as an aid to replenish nitrogen used in the growing process.    The concept of adding fertilizer is old, real old!   Since 1849, mixed fertilizer has been sold commercially, and even long before that, the legend says that Squanto (or Tisquantum) taught the Pilgrims to fertilize their corn with fish.  The practice of replenishing the nutrients of the soil is something consumers do as well as they begin to prepare their lawns for the winter.

The Virginia Ag in the Classroom program has developed some outstanding middle school and high school chemistry applications using the periodic table.  My favorite is a lesson on what percentages of each element N, P and K are in various size bags of fertilizer.  For example a 10 pound bag of  10-10-10 fertilizer contains 10% of each N, P, and K.   30% of the bag (3 pounds) is actually the nutrient, the remaining 70% (7 pounds) are filler, which allows those using the fertilizer to spread it over a large area without the threat of over-fertilizing. 

Our own Illinois Soil Ag Mag features a great look at N, P and K and how Illinois farmers work to protect our most precious asset, our great soil!

So as we celebrate National Chemistry Week next week–what about watching a farmer, and thanking him for taking care of the land and the water we all share–and learn a little chemistry along the way!

Kevin Daugherty
Illinois Ag in the Classroom

Leave a Reply