Evidence indicates a strong positive relationship between increases in nitrogen fertilizer use on cropland and nitrate concentrations in shallow ground water. This raises concern about the fate and efficiency of nitrogen fertilizer with current farming practices. Approximately 50 percent of the nitrogen fertilizer applied may be recovered by agronomic crops and 35 percent or less removed in the harvested grain of a crop such as corn. The residual nitrogen is subject to loss by several processes, one being leaching from the crop root zone. Alternative production systems that provide ground water protection must give attention to improved management of nitrogen fertilizer and to practices that minimize the need for nitrogen fertilizer and reduce soil nitrate concentrations. Most important in nitrogen fertilizer management is to more closely match nitrogen availability in the soil with crop needs and to avoid over-fertilization. Nitrogen fertilizer use can be reduced by alternate cropping of low and high nitrogen-demanding crops, use of legumes in the crop rotation to fix nitrogen, and proper use of manures, crop residues, and other organic wastes. Residual nitrates in soil can be reduced by use of cover crops, nitrogen-scavenging crops in the rotation, and alternating shallow and deep-rooted crops. Conservation tillage alone as used with many conventional cropping systems will probably not change the current status of nitrate leaching. Practices used by organic farmers should be carefully studied as possible approaches for ground water protection and adaptation into conservation tillage systems for conserving soil and water resources.