A Perilous Descent

In CropLife magazine’s January 2008 outlook issue, we compared the fertilizer marketplace to a mountain, pointing out that the industry was poised for a gradual descent after reaching the summit fueled by increased corn plantings during 2007. By coincidence, a speaker at one of the fall trade shows made a similar comparison regarding fertilizer’s fortunes moving forward.

“As you may know, many people climb Mount Everest each year,” said Joe Prokopanko, president and CEO for The Mosaic Co., speaking at the 2008 Agricultural Retailers Association meeting. “While some are hurt on the way up the mountain, many more are injured while coming back down.”

Today, ag retailers can largely appreciate this imagery. Following a spectacular sales performance in 2007 and an equally impressive one through the first nine months of 2008, fertilizer demand and prices have come tumbling down the mountain. This has retailers — many of whom stocked up fertilizer early on to make certain to meet expected demand — reaching for stomach medicine while hoping for some kind of recovery before the spring fertility season rolls around.

“What keeps me up at night these days?” asked Hov Tinsman III, president at Twin State Inc., Davenport, IA, in an e-mail to CropLife. “How and when my current fertilizer inventory is going to fall in value. Hopefully, not until after I apply it.”

Wendell Stratton, owner for Stratton Seed Co., Stuttgart, AR, agreed. “This is an easy one,” said Stratton. “Not losing money on the high-priced fertilizer inventory we have in-house.”

To appreciate just how quickly some fertilizer prices have dropped, consider sulfur. According to Prokopanko, sulfur was selling for $800 per ton during the summer months of 2008. By early December, it had plummeted to $65 per ton, a whopping 92% drop. Even worse, he added, several market observers were expecting the price would be as low as $50 per ton by end of 2008.

“The net result of all this market instability is that no one is buying and distributors are holding all of their inventories,” said Prokopanko.

Reviewing The Macronutrients

Nitrogen-based fertilizers have gone through similar price declines. For instance, urea was selling for $760 per ton in August 2008; today it can be had for approximately $250 per ton. Likewise, anhydrous ammonia dropped from a high of more than $1,000 per ton during the summer to $530 per ton by the end of the year. As a consequence of these price declines, Doug Stone, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Terra Industries, Inc., was predicting that nitrogen-based fertilizer consumption would drop in 2009, from 21.7 million tons in 2007/08 to 20.8 million tons. For the record, he added that agriculture tends to consume an average of 12.1 million tons of this total. Furthermore, global nitrogen-based fertilizer producers are cutting back on production, temporarily closing plants or running a reduced number of production lines as a result.

“This will likely mean projected tight demand/supply balances for spring 2009, which could cause prices to rebound some,” said Stone, speaking at the Fertilizer Outlook and Technology Conference in early November. “However, the price ride is still ongoing with more loop-de-loops ahead.”

For phosphate, the path down the mountain has been treacherous as well. According to industry insiders, di-ammonium phosphate (DAP) prices were at $1,200 per ton during the summer months. Today, they are down more than 50% to $550 per ton. This has effectively caused phosphate production to grind to a halt. For example, in November, PotashCorp announced production cuts at its White Springs, FL, site. Likewise, Mosaic reported that its phosphate sales volume for its fiscal second quarter was down 38% from first quarter levels, to 1.3 million metric tons.

The potash situation is the same. According to Jeff Holzman, manager of market research for PotashCorp, producers are cutting back on their output levels in an attempt to draw down supplies and stabilize prices. “There are source deferrals of packages in the fourth quarter of 2008 and into the first quarter of 2009,” said Holzman. “Shipments will be down around 3% for the year. Also, in 2009, we can expect no growth or some modest growth to occur in the market.”

The Chicken Little Syndrome

Given all these facts, Mosaic’s Prokopanko asked if 2009 would be the year that the fertilizer industry finally suffers from the long predicted “Chicken Little” effect, with suppliers unable (or unwilling) to meet grower-customer crop nutrient demands, which will reduce crop yields significantly. “Will this be the year when the sky really falls?” he asked.

Ultimately, however, he doesn’t think things will get this bad. Based upon global population projections and the crops needed to feed this growing populace, Prokopanko expects crop nutrient demand to grow from 170 million tons today to 230 million tons by 2020. “The long-term outlook for global agriculture looks rock solid to us,” he concluded. “Although the current market volatility provides serious questions in the near term, we still have as many blessings in this industry as we have challenges.”

Other fertilizer industry watchers agree with this assessment. According to Andy Jung, research manager, phosphate for CRU International, world grain stocks are at historic lows. “Right now, the global grain carryover is 11 weeks,” said Jung. “In 2002, this total stood at 13 weeks. That means we are only one big disaster away from wiping out this amount completely.”

In light of this, Rich Pottorff, chief economist at Doane Advisory Services, said the world will need more corn acreage in 2009 to keep pace with global demand, particularly from U.S. growers. For this reason, he is projecting that growers will plant 89 million acres of corn in 2009, up slightly from 86 million acres in 2008. “We really need more corn acres than this, but the economics have to be there for that to happen, which they are not right now,” said Pottorff. “We have to add 26 million metric tons of food annually to feed the 80 million more people being born each year.”

Consequently, this increased corn acreage should help boost fertilizer demand during 2009. Demand for ethanol should help. Ethanol production in 2009 could require up to 4.8 million bushels of corn, despite waning support. “Even if biofuels support collapsed completely, nitrogen-based fertilizer demand would only decrease by 2%,” said Terra’s Stone.

Leave a Reply

Fertilizer Stories
FertilizerFall Fertility 2014: Forecasting Fertilizer Use
September 7, 2014
Great crops this year have tapped the soil, and fall work is definitely called for, but how challenging will that get? Read More
Aerial view of the West Fertilizer explosion site
FertilizerFertilizer Companies Blame City For West, TX, Explosion
August 6, 2014
El Dorado Chemical Co. and CF Industries contend the city failed to properly train the first responders and had insufficient protocols in place to battle the April 17, 2013, blaze at West Fertilizer Co. that triggered the explosion. Read More
FertilizerThe Fertilizer Institute: New President, Renewed Energy
February 3, 2014
Chris Jahn relishes the opportunity to lead the organization through the challenging times ahead. Read More
FertilizerA New Cycle For Fertilizer Demand
January 2, 2014
Changes in the corn market could have a major impact on the crop nutrients sector in 2014, say experts. Read More
Top 100 Articles
CropLife 100BRANDT Commemorates National Ag Day
March 20, 2015
The Illinois agriculture community gathered at BRANDT global headquarters on March 18 to celebrate National Ag Day behind this year's theme Sustaining Future Generations. Read More
Wheat Growers, North Central Farmers Elevator Pursue Merger
CropLife 100Wheat Growers, North Central Farmers Elevator Pursue Merger
March 3, 2015
Two CropLife 100 retailers — South Dakota Wheat Growers (ranked No. 11) and North Central Farmers Elevator (No. 19) — have entered into a Letter of Intent to unify the two companies into a newly named cooperative. Read More
Growmark Group
CropLife 100GROWMARK In 2015: Back, To The Future
March 2, 2015
The nation’s third largest ag retail organization is simultaneously moving forward while remembering its past. Read More
CropLife 100Pinnacle Expands Sanders Brand In The South
February 27, 2015
Pinnacle has acquired Hopkins Seed and Chemical in Qulin, MO, which expands the company's Sanders brand to nine Southern states. Read More
CropLife 100Pinnacle Launches New Providence Agriculture Location In Indiana
February 27, 2015
Pinnacle Agriculture Holdings — ranked No. 6 on the CropLife 100 — has established a new retail location in New Castle, IN, which will operate as part of Pinnacle's Providence Agriculture brand. Read More
Carl Casale of CHS
CropLife 100Cooperative CHS Returns $518 Million To Owners
February 23, 2015
The 2015 cash return to owners is based on CHS net income of $1.1 billion, the company's second highest on record. Read More
Latest News
FungicidesSyngenta Suing Willowood Over Azoxystrobin Fungicide
March 27, 2015
Syngenta announced today that it has sued agrochemical maker Willowood, LLC., for patent and copyright infringement, as well as unfair Read More
ManagementRetail Week: The Future Of Mycogen Seeds; The 4Rs At Na…
March 27, 2015
Editors Eric Sfiligoj and Matt Hopkins discuss recent trips, including a look at the future of Mycogen Seeds at Dow Read More
Eric SfiligojMonsanto Hears The WHO
March 27, 2015
Another challenge to the safety of glyphosate, and the responses from supporters and opponents, calls to mind a classic Dr. Seuss story. Read More
Industry NewsMonty’s Plant Food Expands Sales Team
March 27, 2015
Monty’s Plant Food Company, a leader in natural soil enhancement and  plant fertility products, has hired Andrew Bullock as a Read More
Crop InputsSyngenta Louisiana Plant Poised For 2015 Production
March 26, 2015
As the 2015 planting season gets underway, growers across the country will need crop protection products to combat pests and Read More
Lake Erie Nutrient Stewardship
LegislationOhio Lawmakers Finalize Phosphorus Restrictions
March 25, 2015
State lawmakers on Wednesday finalized new rules designed to curb toxic algal blooms on Lake Erie, calling the regulations a major step forward in addressing the problem. Read More
Spreaders17 Fertilizer Spreaders For 2015
March 25, 2015
Manufacturers shoot for versatility and accuracy in this year's crop of fertilizer spreaders. Read More
Industry NewsMonty’s Hires Mid-South Product Consultant
March 25, 2015
Monty's Plant Food Co. has hired Matt Woodring as a Product Consultant for portions of Central Kentucky and Tennessee.    Read More
StewardshipMapShots Integrates With DriftWatch
March 23, 2015
Growers and agricultural providers using AgStudio FARM and AgStudio PRO can now view vital information about specialty crops and apiaries through a recent integration with the DriftWatch Specialty Crop Site Registry from FieldWatch, Inc. Read More
Crop InputsWorld Health Organization Report Contradicts Scientific…
March 23, 2015
A new report from the World Health Organization has classified glyphosate with a “2A” rating as a probable carcinogen, a Read More
Eric SfiligojSeed Treatment Stays Necessary
March 20, 2015
Grower-customers looking to scale back spending in 2015 won’t consider seed treatment, say experts. Read More
HerbicidesMARCH MADNESS: Industry Rallies Around Glyphosate Safet…
March 20, 2015
A newly published report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies the herbicide glyphosate as a "2A-rated possible carcinogen" and the ag industry responds by circling the wagons. Read More
ManagementRetail Week: Precision survey, a technology acquisition…
March 20, 2015
Editors Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sflilgoj discuss recent travel, the upcoming precision adoption survey, and an unusual sighting at a Read More
CropLife 100BRANDT Commemorates National Ag Day
March 20, 2015
The Illinois agriculture community gathered at BRANDT global headquarters on March 18 to celebrate National Ag Day behind this year's theme Sustaining Future Generations. Read More
Crop InputsBioSafe Launching TerraGrow Soil Inoculant
March 20, 2015
TerraGrow is a blend of beneficial bacterial and fungal spores and nutrients carefully designed to promote healthier soil and crops. Read More
Winter Wheat
AdjuvantsMax Systems Debuts New Adjuvant NanoRevolution 2.0
March 18, 2015
Added to a tank mix of glyphosate at the conservative rate of two to four ounces per acre, NanoRevolution 2.0 has proven effective in killing resistant weed species that had already had up to two applications of the leading glyphosate product. Read More
Photo credit: United Soybean Board/the Soybean Checkoff
Seed/BiotechAgnition Launches Microbial Catalyst Seed Treatment
March 18, 2015
Agnition it has launched Commence for Soybeans, a microbial catalyst seed treatment for soybeans that stimulates microbial activity for healthier soil and a superior growth environment. Read More
4R Certified, Nutrient Stewardship Council,
StewardshipTyler Grain & Fertilizer Now 4R Certified
March 18, 2015
The 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program has announced Tyler Grain & Fertilizer Co. in Smithville, OH, has been added to Read More