From One Farmer To Another

Up front, I would like to apologize for many of the general misconceptions associated with humates, humic acid, fulvic acid and the overall state of this industry. I hope after reading this you will have a better understanding of humate-based products, sales literature and research.

Research and information on humates until recently was typically performed and written by soil scientists in the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Soviet Blockade. This initially created problems when American based companies began to research and develop humic acid products. The soil types that foreign soil scientists were working with consisted of 4 to 8 percent organic matter. Thus, extraction methods and application rates were based on overseas testing. Reality is that other than a few isolated areas in the U. S. organic matter will be as low as 1/4% to as high as 2%, with better than 70% of these soils under 1%. This created what I call the ‘Band-aid’ effect. Farmers ended up paying high prices for humate-based products and used application rates that provided little or no benefits on an agronomic basis. Additionally, many of the initial manufacturers used foreign test results as a sales tool. Responses and end results obtained by domestic farmers did not come close to those being implied. Thus the term “snake oil” was born.

Another problem created by the lack of domestic research involves the quality of the base material and the manufacturing processes in producing humate-based products. New and consistent standards are needed to monitor the quality of humic acid and humate based fertilizers being marketed today. Currently there are no definitive testing standards in our country. Each individual state has its own unique labeling requirements (an ongoing procedural nightmare for producers), but the majority do not have definitive standards for testing or quality control

There are numerous “humic acid” type products currently available in the United States. Industrial chemists have developed many of these products. Chemical manufacturers have made many attempts to synthetically produce humic acids using a variety of chemical processes. Most of these synthetic products have consisted of polymers of vinyl acetate, maleic acid, polyvinyl alcohol, hydrolyzed polyacrylonitrile, carboxymethicellulose, polyacrylates, isopropyl acrylamide and poly-quaternary ammonium compounds. A chemical analysis of the molecular features of synthetic humic acid products reveals that they lack many of the desired properties of naturally occurring humic substances. Synthetics are reported to lack the molecular features that improve soil fertility and are frequently incompatible with plant metabolic processes. As a result, synthetic humate based products have performed poorly in terms of their ability to improve soil fertility or plant growth. These synthetic products should not be defined as humic acid products. Their erratic performance under field conditions has given the industry another black eye.

Other industrial manufacturers use mature, alkali-insoluble lignite-like coals. They typically use a degradative and oxidation extraction process to produce smaller alkali soluble humic acid solutions. The resulting oxidized mixtures from black or lignite coals are termed ‘regenerated humic acids or ulmins’. These ulmins have characteristics which are similar to humic acids derived from low-grade lignite's or Leonardite shale, however are quite different chemically, thus the term regenerated is a misnomer. There is no evidence that these ulmins have desirable fertilizer grade properties.

In the future, I hope an agency such as the International Humic Substances Society puts into place quality testing procedures, categories and labeling guidelines for all humate-based products. Remember, any company that produces humate-based products can make claims and promises in their sales literature regardless of the type of raw material used. It is also important to keep in mind that companies that start out with the same or equivalent raw material may not produce the same end product. This raises the question, ‘If all literature is basically alike, are all humate-based products basically alike?’ The answer is absolutely not! What can we do? I recommend that until consistent and acceptable industry standards are in place, growers, gardeners, golf course superintendents and other users should purchase humate based products that are sourced and/or extracted from ‘highly oxidized mined low grade Lignite's or Leonardite shale’. Humic substances from such mineral deposits more closely resemble naturally occurring humic substances found in fertile healthy soils.

Finally, please keep in mind that just because the literature or label says humates, humic acids or fulvic acids, it does not mean it is the same as the one you may have used before, or are currently using. Although it goes against all logic, remember that perception is not always reality. I hope any additional questions you may have are answered for you in our information catalog. If not, please feel free to call our toll free number at 1-888-814-8318 between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., Arizona time.

P. Mark Turner
The Catalyst Product Group

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