Photos by Chris Maggio

The Corn That Grows Itself

How microbes could upend America’s toxic dependence on nitrogen fertilizer

Close to 100 million tons of nitrogen added to the world’s crop fields are lost to the environment every year, either as gas emissions or as runoff.

The invention and proliferation of man-made fertilizer over the last century broke the link between microbes and farming.

Corn kernels in Misch’s field

“This is the first version of the iPhone. It does something that never was possible before.”

Jake Misch

“There really are no regulations on how to use synthetic fertilizers. Most farmers are trying to be good managers of it. It’s just that Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate.”

“Our goal is to replace as much synthetic nitrogen as we can.”

Misch in his tractor

Writer based near Washington, D.C. Read more: or

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