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PA Farmer Selected as 2020 4R Advocate

Delta, PA. (January 8, 2020) – Farmer Mike Kurek of Susquehanna Orchards in Delta, Pennsylvania and his agronomist, Tim Hushon of The Mill, were selected to be part of an elite group representing 4R Nutrient Stewardship as part of The Fertilizer Institute’s 4R Advocate Program. This program was established nine years ago to recognize farmers and retailers who go above and beyond to implement enhanced nutrient management practices. Kurek and Hushon join 44 other grower/advisor pairs that have been recognized since the program’s inception, and they are the first to receive the award from Pennsylvania.

The 4R Advocate program showcases growers that champion 4R Nutrient Stewardship—applying the Right nutrient source, at the Right rate, Right time, and Right place to maximize nutrient use efficiency for high-yielding crops and to protect water quality from nutrient losses. “We’re extremely proud to have Mike and Tim representing 4Rs and Pennsylvania with national recognition,” says Eric Rosenbaum, Executive Director for the Pennsylvania 4R Alliance.

Kurek, along with his wife, Trish, recognizes the value of 4R Nutrient Stewardship. As the parents of three children under the age of six, the Kureks want to preserve their land for future generations while ensuring sustainable business practices that provide for their family. The Kureks own and manage 315 acres in Delta, Pennsylvania where they produce corn, soybeans, peaches, apples, and pumpkins. The family also operates a popular on-farm store and pick-your-own operation. The farm is located just four miles north of the Conowingo Dam which signifies the head of the Chesapeake Bay.

Kurek originally started down the 4R path in his orchards. He saw improvements in yields as he implemented a spoon-feeding foliar fertilizer application system and minimized disturbance of soil within the orchard. He utilizes regular tissue sampling in the orchards to assess nutrient needs and, in many years, applies 100% of his nutrients through foliar application. “There aren’t many 4R programs available for orchards specifically, so I was forced to develop my own,” says Kurek.

In 2012-2013, Kurek began applying the 4R practices he had learned in the orchard to his row crops and turned to the Bel Air, Maryland-based agricultural retailer, The Mill, for the latest in agricultural technologies. Tim Hushon began advising Kurek and has been the gateway to 4Rs for Susquehanna Orchards. “Mike is very open-minded when it comes to trying new technologies,” says Tim. “When I learn about a new product or tool that The Mill can offer growers, I turn to Mike to help me test it out. We both love the challenge of maximizing yield through 4R Nutrient Stewardship.”

Active in the local and online communities, Kurek cares about sharing the message of the importance of agriculture and the good work being done by farmers. With his public-facing orchard, and now as a 4R Advocate, he has a great platform for sharing how nutrient management benefits water quality to school groups and parents that regularly visit the orchards.

Both Kurek and Hushon recognize the importance of sharing the message of Nutrient Stewardship and have actively engaged with the PA4R Alliance to provide education and outreach to farmers across the state. “I find it very important to get the 4R message out to more people,” Kurek said, “Compared to many of the older practices I’ve seen, there is really a better way of doing things now. It’s scary to take that leap, but through my partnership with Tim at The Mill, I’ve felt confident in moving our operation forward with 4Rs.” As part of this award, both Kurek and Hushon will be traveling to the Commodity Classic in San Antonio, TX in February to receive recognition on the national stage. They will also be engaged in field days, publications, and media events throughout 2020.

Congratulations on this achievement!

The PA 4R Alliance, a member of the Mid-Atlantic 4R Nutrient Stewardship Association, is a non-profit organization comprised of agribusiness, government agencies and environmental groups whose mission is to promote 4R Nutrient Stewardship—applying the RIGHT nutrient sources for the crop, at the RIGHT rate to maximize crop yield, at the RIGHT time and the RIGHT place to maximize uptake and minimize nutrient loss. For more details on the Mid-Atlantic 4R Nutrient Stewardship Association, and to learn more about other 4R events in Pennsylvania and throughout the region, click here or follow us on Facebook. For the full article on the 2020 4R Advocates, click here.

Delta Star Article about 4R Award

Two area men have received a national award for their efforts to team as a farmer and retailer to implement innovative fertilizer management in The Fertilizer Institute’s national 4R Nutrient Stewardship, yielding economic and environmental benefits for a local farm.

Mike Kurek of Delta’s Susquehanna Orchards Inc. and Tim Hushon of The Mill in Red Lion are named 2020 4R Advocates, the first team ever earning the honor for Pennsylvania.

The institute’s 4R award recognizes teams who practice the “right fertilizer, the right rate, the right time and the right place.”

“For nine years we’ve been honoring the true champions of 4R Nutrient Stewardship—the farmers and retailers who take risks to implement innovative fertilizer management and conservation practices,” said Lara Moody, TFI vice-president for stewardship and sustainability. “I’m thrilled that this year we’ve added 10 more excellent advocates who have so clearly demonstrated the real-world success of the 4Rs on their farms.”

TFI recognized five new teams for 2020. Along with the Kurek/Hushon team, those of Florida, Minnesota, Montana and Texas received kudos.

Overall, the 4R Advocate Program has honored 90 growers and retailers responsible for farming 215,006 acres in 22 states. The 2020 awards represent two new geographies, those of Pennsylvania and Texas.

Kurek said that he wishes to practice good stewardship of his orchard and crop land, located at 560 Orchard Road, Delta, to ensure good decisions are made about fertilizer.

“Crops need to be sustainable, and the community needs to be sustainable,” he said, adding that he is aware his farm is near the Susquehanna River, Delta-Peach Bottom Elementary School and neighbors’ wells. “We’re trying to do the right thing.”

To achieve those goals, he and agronomist Hushon, a Stewartstown resident, have worked hand and hand, he said.

Kurek said the two are using technology to understand more how to improve their environment and crops and also to make better management decisions.

Knowing how fertilizer works and how to use it, they now utilize satellite imagery to see how crops are doing, as well as a computer program to help manage nitrogen application, he said. That program lets them track the amount of nitrogen used by the crops versus how much is leached into soil so it is not over-applied, he added.

“One of the really nice things about working with Mike is his willingness to try something,” said Hushon. “He’s always willing to try, not just to raise more crops, but to make sure it’s profitable.”

Hushon said that a great deal of that is accomplished through the technologies Kurek described.  

He said too, “With the corn and soybean crops, we started to make his fertility program into sub-field management zones in order to identify within a single field which areas benefit from added nutrients.”   That new practice is a departure from the traditional uniform application of fertilizer to an entire field, he said.

Kurek and Hushon have worked now for five years, and were encouraged to apply for the TFI honor by the The Nature Conservancy Pennsylvania Chapter, which felt they were well qualified to receive it.

Kurek said that Ben Hushon and his team at The Mill have done a great job of promoting new, sustainable farming practices. The Mill trains its staff in technology and then brings it back home to its clients and the areas touched by its stores, he said.

Kurek and Hushon will be honored with the other teams at the 2020 Commodity Classic in San Antonio, Texas in February, where they will represent the 4R program during a trade show.

Then, throughout the year, the two will be part of TFI’s outreach efforts to promote fertilizer management practices by hosting farm field days, participating in conference panels and speaking on behalf of 4R practices to their farming peers.

Award-Winning 4R Advocates Say Data Driven, Environmentally Responsible Agriculture Is the Future


DELTA, Pa. — Mike Kurek feels frustrated when fellow farmers tell him he’s wasting his time and money by micro-managing his fertilizer applications.

Kurek is a total believer in the 4R approach to nutrient management. “4R” is short for the right source, the right rate, the right time and the right place.

Kurek’s answer to his critics is that 4R lowers his fertilizer bill, boosts yields and keeps plant nutrients on his farm, rather than running off into the Susquehanna River. The Susqhehanna literally laps up against some of the 350 acres Mike and his wife, Patricia, farm in southern York County, about five miles north of the Maryland line.

A grove of doughnut peach trees was just beginning to show a hint of green on March 11 at Susquehanna Orchards.

4R does take a lot of thought, reams of field maps, precision ag equipment, soil and tissue samples, a keen eye on the bottom line, capital, ongoing consultant fees, and a commitment to soil stewardship, which Kurek equates with good citizenship.

“I really care about my woods and my streams,” Kurek said when we visited his farm. “I’m an avid fisherman. I don’t want to be the one with a finger pointed at me for being that Pennsylvania farmer who’s being reckless with over-fertilization.”

We visited Kurek on the pre-social distancing day of Wednesday, March 11. We talked to him and Tim Hushon, his agronomy consultant, who is also passionate about soil stewardship. Hushon is a certified crop adviser who works out of the Bel Air location of The Mill, which has six retail farm supply and garden centers in Maryland and another in Red Lion, Pennsylvania.

Kurek and Hushon had recently returned from San Antonio, Texas, where they were guests of The Fertilizer Institute at the Commodity Classic, an annual trade show for some of the heaviest hitters in U.S. agriculture. About 4,500 farmers attend the show. Attendees average about $1.5 million in gross ag income, and have an average farm size of 3,000 acres.

Mike Kurek pauses to inspect early blossoms on one of the peach trees at Susquehanna Orchards.

At the TFI banquet during the late February Commodity Classic, Kurek and Hushon were one of five two-person teams from around the country to be honored with 4R Advocacy awards. The award program began in 2011. Kurek and Hushon were the first team from Pennsylvania to be recognized.

Last fall, Kurek and Hushon teamed up with Katie Turner to host a 4R field day for York County farmers. Turner is the agricultural program manager for the Pennsylvania chapter of The Nature Conservancy. At the close of the field day, one of Turner’s colleagues suggested they apply for the TFI award, which they did — though they’d never heard of it — and which is how they found themselves on a three-day adventure in San Antonio, compliments of TFI.

Now, pandemic or no pandemic, they’re back to work. Kurek is the fifth generation of his family to operate Susquehanna Orchards, as the farm is known. The farm had its beginning in 1922, when a group of York County lawyers bought it as an investment. The lawyers hired Kurek’s great-grandparents to run the farm. The great-grandparents gradually bought out the lawyers, and it’s been in the family ever since.

It takes a crew of five about three months to prune the trees at Susquehanna Orchards. When the pruning is done, the pruned branches are blown out from under the trees and into the rows between trees.

Kurek was a business major at Millersville University when his mother invited him back to the farm in 2008. She had been running the business herself after she and Kurek’s father divorced. By 2012, she was ready to get out of the farming business, and Kurek bought it from her.

 

Kurek was majoring in business when he left Millersville for a full-time role on the family farm. He took on management responsibilities from the beginning. As the new boss, he was given a notebook with instructions on how to spray the orchards. The notebook contained a plan that had worked the year before.

And the year before that.

And the year before that.

Etc.

Talking to Kurek, it becomes apparent that data is as important to him as his tractors. And a notebook filled with last decade’s data needed some serious rethinking. Kurek started on the path to 4R by ditching the notebook. He began to spoon feed the trees with foliar fertilizer applications. He minimized soil disturbance. He started regular tissue sampling. Yields went up.

Except for sales at their on-farm store, Susquehanna Orchard peaches are all wholesaled as fresh fruit to farmers markets and small retailers in Pennsylvania and the Delmarva. The farm’s three delivery trucks carry fresh apples on the same circuit when peaches are done. About 20% of the apple crop does go to a nearby cider mill.

His analytical approach to the orchard business bore fruit, so to speak, with more and higher quality peaches and apples.

The orchards cover 130 acres of the Kurek property. The other 220 acres of rolling hills had been rented out for decades to a neighbor who grew mostly corn and soybeans. Kurek phased out the rental agreement, and in 2011 began planting his own corn and beans.

There is a lot more 4R guidance available for the row crop farmer than there is for the orchardist. Tons more. Kurek turned to The Mill and Tim Hushon for expertise. “I wanted to grow crops in the best and most efficient way. Technology is expanding,” he said. “The Mill was actively pursuing, and is still pursuing new technology and implementing it on their customers’ farms. We meshed. As they learned stuff, I learned stuff. We worked together.”

One of the most important steps Kurek and Hushon took together was to deploy the Adapt-N computer model to the row crops. Adapt-N is proprietary software that simulates the nitrogen cycle, including nitrogen fixation, nitrification and denitrification through a combination of soil, weather, crop and field management modeling. It’s an important tool for Kurek, who splits his corn crop’s nitrogen feeding. Part of the N goes on at planting, and part goes on as a foliar application when the plants are out of the ground. Adapt-N takes the guesswork out of the foliar spray. It takes into account temperature, rainfall, how much N went on at planting time, and 10 other variables. Then it tells Kurek exactly how much nitrogen to use on exactly which acre and on exactly the day he takes his sprayer into the field.

Detailed soil maps are an important part of the Kurek/Hushon teamwork. At the beginning of their work together, Kurek paid about $20 an acre to map the soil types on every field. Barring any major earth moving projects, the maps will serve him well for as long as he’s running the farm. The soil maps and together with yield data from the previous year determine the amount of phosphorus and potassium that need to be broadcast on each section of each field. The Mill operators use GPS-guided variable rate spreading equipment to put P and K where they’re needed, and only where they’re needed.

The charge for variable rate spreading is $12 an acre rather than $8 for one-rate-for-all, but Kurek feels his fertilizer bill is at least $4 an acre less.

Management decisions for Susquehanna Orchards are Kurek’s responsibility. He owns the data that he gets from The Mill, but depends on Hushon to help him manage it. Kurek’s numbers have shown him that farming with data is good for business. His farming practices — cover crops, no-till planting, split applications of nitrogen, variable rate applications of phosphorus and potash — are all part of environmental and soil stewardship.

Kurek believes that in the next 10 to 15 years, data driven and environmentally responsible agriculture are going to determine who continues to farm and who goes into other lines of work. He’s embraced current technology. He expects consumer preferences will play an increasingly important role, not only in what farmers produce, but also in how they produce it.

Kurek sees an exciting future for agriculture, and he’s ready to embrace it.