The Steps Back and Beyond Traditional Fertilisers

I was recently asked to explain what we are trying to achieve with our company. It is not, (as most small fertiliser companies seem to attempt to do) to vilify the traditional fertiliser companies. It is more about looking at where the fertiliser industry and farmers are standing now, asking if it is really working, admitting the answer is “sort of yes and sort of no” and accepting we both want and need to do much better than that.

 The Steps Back

The traditional fertiliser industry does a lot of work tweaking what they already do and generally do it well within the parameters they set themselves.  But since it isn’t achieving what we feel it could and should, we decided to look back and see where the fertiliser industry as a whole deviated onto this path – hence The Steps Back.

If we look hard, it actually started in the late 1800’s, when it was decided the important elements in plant growth were NPK. Since then, the entire fertiliser industry has been built almost exclusively around NPK. These 3 elements are important  – so “sort of Yes

But knowing what we know now, we may have to admit that there were large chunks of knowledge, some unknown in the 1800’s and 1900’s , and other chunks just largely ignored – so “sort of No

As we take The Steps Back, what do we see? Actually it is an industry that has taken the element groups, and isolated them into elements that are convenient for mining and/or manufacture, convenient to transport, and convenient for the farmer to apply to the paddock – but not really what plants,  soil and soil biology in its entirety needs. What we have learnt is that these three factors, plant, soil and soil biology have to work together to achieve growth. The interesting thing is the fertiliser industry worldwide is not actually really that interested in soil biology at all, it is interested in NPK. So we have ended up with an industry that tries really hard to supply the elements it feels need to be supplied, but that many of the elements supplied are distorted, fraudulent, sometimes even dangerous as far as soil and soil biology are concerned. Many soil scientists will tell you this is nonsense, they have tests that prove the “sort of yes” things are working so they feel they must be right!


Soil structure

But we now know that even most traditional fertilisers can’t get into the plant without soil biology. Take a favourite, Urea. The ammonical nitrogen has to be converted into nitrite nitrogen before it can be absorbed into the plant (unless it is dissolved and enters under osmotic pressure). How is the conversion performed?  It is done by the soil biology. This is the case in nearly all elements that are stored in the soil. And your stored elements in the soil are key to sustained plant growth.


 The Steps Beyond

Once we understand this point we have absolutely no choice but to accept that in future we have to take into account not just the chemical elements, but also the physical and biological needs of the soil and constantly ask ourselves whether the decisions we make in applying fertiliser also address soil biology.

That gives the starting point – now we look for a different path, using the information we have that can do a better job than traditional fertilisers – and that gives us The Steps Beyond


So What Are The Steps Beyond

The Steps Beyond  are we develop products and processes that address the Chemical, Physical and Biological needs of soils and plants. I have sat in the office of  a major NZ fertiliser company and a senior manager has told me “Chris forget about biology, we don’t fully understand it and it just confuses the farmers”  I was somewhat horrified, but I equally understand where he is coming from! When you are trying to sell something, whether it’s fertiliser or jam,  it is usually important to keep it simple! And it is true that we don’t fully understand soil biology but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it.

I also agree with the industry that we have to be careful of what they almost gleefully call “Snake oil.” There certainly are charlatans out there. Again from my personal experience file I have had one compost tea producer tell me “as long as it is brown the farmers are happy” This does huge disservice to the whole industry.


But if we are to take The Steps Beyond  we are going to have to risk discussing uncomfortable matters  and that means, for a start, to stop calling anything that is a potential competitor / new development “snake oil” and start working to understand what’s different and why.  Just because you don’t control it or it may contradict what you previously thought doesn’t mean it is wrong. If actions taken in the past were based on the best information at that time, they was not wrong, even if new information now suggests alternative routes; So don’t be afraid of change.

What is wrong is failing to act on new or updated information.

In NZ case, 90% plus of the fertiliser business is controlled by the 2 farmer owned cooperatives. I find it somewhat depressing that with such a unique position NZ is not a world leader in fertiliser. Also in Australia, you have a couple of large dominant groups who also can and should be be leading the implementation of developments as well as being suppliers. If you look at the tech industry it has thrived because the large companies have largely licensed or bought up the smaller companies that have developed innovative technologies, bringing those innovations into the mainstream rather than just trying to crush or bury them. And because of that, the whole tech industry has benefited.

 Modern Fertiliser

So back to the question – what are we trying to achieve? We at The Growing Group are trying to cut a new groove, to develop products and tools that tackle the chemical, physical and biological needs of soil and plants so that we can help mainstream farmers grow naturally nutrient rich crops – we think of that as Modern Fertiliser. We are certainly not perfect or always correct, but we are out there, risking our money,  attempting to develop solutions to offer farmers The Steps Beyond.



Chris Copplestone

Chris has more than 30 years working in the fertiliser industry, mainly internationally supplying raw materials and finished products to and from Australasia, Asia, Africa and former Soviet Union. Chris owned a sheep & beef farm in NZ for more than 10 years which generated his interest in developing modern fertilisers.

Chris is Managing Director of The Growing Group, developers of CarboPhos® and CarboUrea®

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