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

Trending Articles

Crop InputsPlatform Specialty Products To Acquire Arysta LifeScience
October 20, 2014
Once the acquisition is complete, Platform Specialty Products will combine Arysta LifeScience with previously acquired companies Agriphar and Chemtura Crop Solutions. Read More
Seed/BiotechMonsanto Offers New Support For Ferguson, Area Communities
October 8, 2014
Monsanto Co. has committed $1 million in new support for several collaborative efforts in Ferguson, MO, and surrounding communities in North St. Louis County. Read More
Seed/BiotechUnapproved Genetically Modified Wheat Found In Montana
October 3, 2014
USDA reports that one year after discovery of Monsanto's unapproved wheat in a single Oregon field disrupted U.S. wheat export sales, the GMO wheat has again been found in Montana. Read More
Equipment2014 Product Of The Year Voting
September 19, 2014
The deadline to vote for the 2014 CropLife IRON Product of the Year is October 31. Please cast your vote today to help us determine the winner. Read More
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
CropLife 100CHS To Build $3 Billion Fertilizer Plant In North Dakota
September 5, 2014
The fertilizer plant in Spiritwood will be the single largest investment in CHS history, as well as the single largest private investment project ever undertaken in North Dakota. Read More

Latest News

InsecticidesValent U.S.A., MGK Form Marketing Agreement
October 24, 2014
Valent has formed an agreement with Minneapolis-based MGK to manage the marketing and sales of MGK’s crop protection line of insect control products within the U.S. beginning April 1, 2015. Read More
StewardshipFlorida’s 4R Advocate Keeps Improving
October 24, 2014
Florida farmer Alan Jones uses the 4R principles of nutrient stewardship as the core of his fertility program, which allows him to maximize production and keep costs in check. Read More
Seed/BiotechMonsanto Named One Of The World’s Best Multinational …
October 23, 2014
Monsanto ranked No. 8 in the world’s largest annual study of workplace excellence that identifies the top 25 best multinational companies in terms of workplace culture. Read More
Crop InputsArysta Hires Former Agri-Chem, CPS Employee For Delta S…
October 23, 2014
New Territory Sales Manager Mark Peel’s primary role will focus on working with growers regarding fungicides in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee. Read More
CropLife 100GROWMARK Announces Appointments In Plant Food Division
October 22, 2014
GROWMARK, Inc. has announced the three key staff changes in its Plant Food Division. Read More
CropLife 100GROWMARK Appoints New VP Of Finance And Risk Management
October 22, 2014
Wade Mittelstadt has been named GROWMARK Vice President, Financial and Risk Mangement, effective December 1, 2014. Read More
FungicidesEPA Approves BASF In-Furrow Corn Fungicide
October 22, 2014
Field trials show Xanthion In-furrow fungicide provides more rapid emergence, extended residual control and improved seedling health than untreated crops. Read More
EquipmentAgraScout App Available At No Cost To Universities
October 21, 2014
AgraScout, a fast and easy to use mobile crop scouting app, is now available at no cost to University students, Read More
LegislationNew Farm Bill Program To Provide Relief To Farmers Affe…
October 21, 2014
The USDA has implemented a new Farm Bill initiative that will provide relief to farmers affected by severe weather, including drought. Read More
ManagementGreenfield Scholars Program Aims To Sustain Agronomy Wo…
October 21, 2014
The program encourages talented students to study agronomy, crop and soil sciences while cultivating networks to develop the necessary workforce to sustain the profession. Read More
Paul SchrimpfPrecision Ag: Taking It To The Hill
October 21, 2014
A new coalition took the good news message of precision agriculture to Washington, DC, last month. Read More
ManagementUSDA Awards $18 Million In Small Business Research Gran…
October 21, 2014
The grants will provide high quality, advanced research and development that will lead to technological innovations and solutions for American agriculture. Read More
FertilizerCF Industries Terminates Merger Discussions With Yara I…
October 21, 2014
CF Industries Holdings and Yara International have terminated their discussions regarding a potential merger of equals transaction. Read More
Seed/BiotechSyngenta Ranked A Top 10 Biotech Employer For Third tim…
October 20, 2014
Syngenta ranked in the top 10 among the world’s top biotech employers, according to an annual survey conducted by Science magazine. Read More
CropLife 100Wheat Growers Break Ground For New Facility At Kennebec
October 20, 2014
Wheat Growers has broke ground for a state-of-the-art shuttle loader grain handling, fertilizer and agronomy facility in Kennebec, SD. Read More
FertilizerVerdesian Life Sciences Signs Agreement With Los Alamos…
October 20, 2014
Verdesian Life Sciences has signed a licensing agreement with Los Alamos National Laboratory to develop and market LANL’s latest nitrogen enhancement technology for plants. Read More
MicronutrientsStoller Group Announces Groundbreaking At New Office Bu…
October 20, 2014
Jerry Stoller, founder and president of Stoller Group, announced the groundbreaking at the site of the company’s future headquarters in Read More
Crop InputsBioSafe Systems Opens New Production Facility In Nevada
October 20, 2014
BioSafe Systems has completed construction of a state-of-art production facility in Sparks, NV, for its line of activated peroxygen products. Read More