Be Skeptical About Miracle Products

Farmer fertilizing arable land with nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium fertilizer

By Harry Brook

A few years ago, the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) changed their rules for the registration of fertilizer products. Up until then, any registered product had to be shown to be both effective and safe for the environment. Well, they changed the rules so that now a fertilizer only needs to be proven to be safe. There are some “fertilizer” products out there that may not actually improve yield but they are safe!

Previously, we already had several micronutrient companies out there selling their products and mixes with a variety of claims. Since the change in rules, there has been an explosion of companies selling trace mineral products “guaranteeing” great returns on your investment in their products. If anyone is interested, you should read the book “How to Lie with Statistics”. It is a quick read but does explain the different techniques using statistics to sell products. They have lots of little tricks like only showing the top part of a graph to exaggerate small differences or not including how many times a trial was conducted and cherry picking the one trial that shows what they want. It reminds me of the old statement: “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with BS.”

One red flag that comes up is when the product relies only on testimonials from other farmers. You have no idea what occurred in their fields or the changes they may have been making in the fields where the product was used. Often, I have seen a producer change six things in a field then attribute a yield improvement to one change and ignore the rest.

Some companies use research data from other countries, using that research to support their product’s use in Canada. In one instance, the research was done in Turkey, where the soils have been farmed for thousands of years, versus less than 150 years on the prairies. Statistics need to be repeatable to be held as true. If a response only happens once in 20 trials, that is mere random chance. Ideally, you want to see an economic response at least greater than 50% of the time.

A lot of this is just a reminder to be skeptical about any claims related to trace mineral fertilizer product efficacy. Whether they are a seed coating or applied to the crop, be skeptical. If you are interested in a particular product, conduct your own research. With modern GPS on seeders and combines, it should be easy to run a few strip trials for yourself. It may take a bit of time but it does answer the question of worthwhile expenses. Prove to yourself a product is worth its’ cost. It should be replicated several times in a field. The more times it is replicated, the more accurate is your answer. Repeated over a couple or three years is even better as some products may only respond in certain climatic conditions. Measure results, don’t rely on anecdotal reckoning. Don’t rely on crop colour change, but yield. If you spray iron on an emerged crop, it turns a dark green. This doesn’t indicate a shortage of iron, as our soils are rich in iron. And it does nothing for the yield, it is just a colour change. Stick to those changes that make a positive difference to your bottom line.

Since you are paying the bill, it only makes sense to make sure you are compensated for the dollars invested in fertilizer. Be suspicious if the “must have” product is only $7 to $10/acre. Test and measure for yourself. Other than copper on wheat, most micronutrients will not pay for themselves. Don’t believe me, test it for yourself.

Harry Brook is Flagstaff County’s Agricultural Fieldman. He can be reached via email at: or by phone at: 780-384-4138.