Fertilizer: Uneven Recovery

Many in agriculture, from the relative newcomer to the jaded “seen it all” expert, describe the 2008 year in fertilizer using some pretty heady terms:
“Incredible.”
“Unprecedented.”
“Game-changing.”

Thanks to the violent fertilizer price crash last fall that followed on the heels of a massive price run-up through the spring and summer, many retailers bought high on expected shortages — only to be left holding the bag when customers did not follow through on purchases.

Retailers who did not dial into high-priced product made out well, but the clear majority spent the most recent pre-season dealing with angry growers refusing to pay fertilizer prices significantly higher than they were seeing for wholesale product on the Internet.

With the growing season winding down and fall fertilizer time closing in, retailers are taking stock of current market conditions from the supplier to the grower and making plans for the months ahead. By most accounts, any rebound in fertilizer will be measured in steps and not leaps.

Both Sides Of The Market

“Fall sales may improve a little over last year, but not much,” says Richard Warner, President, Warner Fertilizer Co. in Somerset, KY. Warner’s view is actually more optimistic than many dealers, who don’t believe that sales will increase this season at all.

However, some retailers have already seen improvements this season. Kathy Sims, President, Sims Fertilizer & Chemical, Osborne, KS, says: “We saw tremendous growth in the fertilizer segment of our business this year. Our sales were up by more than 100%.” The secret to Sims’ success? “We were very fortunate that we did not stock fertilizer last fall, and that put us in a very competitive position.”

Other retailers were not so lucky, but are still hopeful. Larry Beck, President, Mid-Valley Agricultural Services Inc., Linden, CA, says: “Fertilizer sales were down in 2008 because of the price of potash. Recently the price of potash has dropped, but it needs to come down another 20% to attract increased usage on the West Coast. The price of nitrogen and phosphorus will result in normal usage in 2010.” The high price of potash may impede its sales again this year and next, but growers will be putting on more phosphates and nitrogen.

Potash prices are still a problem for growers and retailers alike. “I feel that the price of potash needs to be adjusted downward even more,” says Verne Johnson, President, Jay-Mar, Inc. of Plover, WI. “Though it has come down in price, it’s still way too high relative to the price of nitrogen and phosphate.”

“Fall sales could be better as grain prices improve,” Warner says. “Crop input costs such as fertilizer, particularly potash, still need to decrease to overcome the bad taste that farmers had as a result of the two prior years’ high prices.”

Grain prices are also having a strong negative effect on fertilizer purchases. Wheat futures fell in early August, bringing down fertilizer demand. Brent W. Sutton, General Manager, Growers Fertilizer of Lake Alfred, FL, says: “Commodity prices need to improve for our customers. Lower cost fertilizer materials may help sales also.”

Whether or not commodity prices go back up, however, growers may not be able to skip adding fertilizer two years in a row. With lower grain prices, growers can’t afford to lose quality or yield as well. Dan Mogged, Vice President of Van Horn Inc., Cerro Gordo, IL, says: “Even with the commodity prices being down, [growers] know they need to replace fertilizer.” Van Horn Inc. has been taking respectable orders for fall: “It looks like they’re significantly increasing because they cut back last year,” Mogged says. “In a lot of cases, they’re putting on what they didn’t put on last year to make up for that.”

Johnson says Jay-Mar “would love to have better fall fertilizer sales, but low grain prices and even lower milk prices are making fall fertilizer application hard to afford. Another factor affecting the fall season is the price of potash,” he adds. “As of late July, the price of potash is way out-of-synch with the rest of the fertilizer market. Unless the prices paid to the farmer increase and/or the price of potash decreases, it will still be a disappointing fall season.”

We Shall Overcome

As for last year’s inventories, early returns from the 2009 CropLife 100 Survey indicate that the high-priced inventory has been dealt with and many retailers are ready for 2010.

“We just wrote down what we had and moved forward,” explains Mogged. “Looking back at last year as we were coming into it, the quicker you decided to take a hit on some stuff, the better you worked through it. Because if you decided to do it earlier, you got a better price for it than if you waited until later to just write it down.”

How can dealers avoid getting stuck with massive inventories again this year? “That’s the $64,000 question,” says Johnson. “If I knew the answer, I’d be a very rich man. We got stuck with expensive inventory this year because we and many other dealers relied on our trusted suppliers who told us that ‘You need to buy now or you won’t get your product.’ Then prices plummeted, leaving dealers stuck with bins and tanks full of high-priced inventory.” Jay-Mar isn’t running a specific promotion to unload inventories this fall; however, says Johnson: “Our goal is to have our bins and tanks as empty as possible, and our sales force will work to achieve this goal. We regularly solicit pre-pay business during the winter months … [and] anticipate that the potato growers in our area will be eager to pre-pay again this year.”

Adaptability can be key, says Sims: “After 30 years in the fertilizer and chemical business, we have never seen a year like this one. But one thing that is constant in this business is that every year is different and you have to adjust if you are going to survive.” Although Sims Fertilizer & Chemical managed to avoid last year’s massive fertilizer stockpiles, Sims says, “We did have some high priced inventories in chemicals, but because we sell high volumes we were able to buy some cheaper inventory and cost average what we sold.” Retailers still stuck with large fertilizer inventories may be able to benefit from such a strategy.

Both those who were burned by the high-priced inventories last year and those who managed to avoid it have advice to offer: “Watch product costs closely, follow grain and cattle prices, and listen to customers’ concerns and plans,” advises Warner.

“Buy and commit to the least amount possible,” recommends Sutton.

And finally, don’t forget about location: “We are fortunate to be within 10 miles of the port of Stockton, so we don’t require much storage,” says Beck.

As for 2010? The key is to not repeat last year’s problems with overstocked, high-priced inventory — and to remain optimistic. As Sims puts it: “We remain positive about next year’s sales and look forward to the new challenges.”

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 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
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
corn field
CropLife 100The Andersons’ Humic DG Now Available In Canada
February 13, 2015
The Andersons, Inc. Turf & Specialty Group has announced its Humic DG product is now available to customers in the Canadian turf, agriculture and horticulture markets. Read More
Farmer on tablet
CropLife 100Southern States Co-op: An Inside Look At Our Aerial Imagery Program
February 8, 2015
Now is as good a time as any to explore the basics of what a retail aerial imagery program looks like today. Read More
CropLife 100Wilbur-Ellis Inks Satellite Imagery Agreement
February 3, 2015
Wilbur-Ellis Company has reached an agreement with Planet Labs to bring satellite imagery to the AgVerdict software platform. Read More
CropLife 100The Andersons Starts Venture Capital Subsidiary
January 26, 2015
The Andersons has established Maumee Ventures, a venture capital subsidiary designed to foster promising innovations that strategically align with the company’s core businesses. Read More
Latest News
CropLife 100Pinnacle Launches New Providence Agriculture Location I…
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
Auto Draft
HerbicidesUniversity Of Arkansas Flag The Technology Program Adds…
February 27, 2015
Started in 2010, the Flag the Technology program provides a visual reference for applicators to distinguish between fields planted with different herbicide-tolerant trait technologies. Read More
Luckey Farmers, Inc.’s Berkey Farm Center
Industry NewsLuckey Farmers’ Berkey Branch Certified In 4R Nut…
February 26, 2015
The 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program has announced Luckey Farmers Inc.’s Berkey Farm Center in northwest Ohio has been added to its growing list of nutrient service providers to achieve certified status. Read More
Crop InputsWinField Unveiling NutriVision Technology, Ascend Dry F…
February 24, 2015
New for 2015 are NutriVision Technology, a unique tool for monitoring in-season plant nutrient availability, and Ascend WSG plant growth regulator, a new dry formulation of Ascend plant growth regulator. Read More
FertilizerNew Formulation Of NutriSphere-N Protects High Volume U…
February 24, 2015
Verdesian Life Sciences is launching NutriSphere-N HVTM, a new polymer formulation of the proven NutriSphere-N Nitrogen Fertilizer Manager that protects high-volume applications of UAN. Read More
EquipmentIowa Ag Secretary Northey Names Hagie Water Quality Lea…
February 24, 2015
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey has named Hagie Mfg. as a recipient of the Secretary’s Water Quality Initiative (WQI) Leader Award. Read More
FungicidesEvito Fungicide Gives Canadian Wheat Growers New Diseas…
February 24, 2015
EVITO fungicide from Arysta LifeScience North America gives Canadian wheat and barley growers a new option for disease control. Read More
Eric SfiligojThe Commodity Classic Turns 20
February 23, 2015
Two decades in, this annual gathering of all things agriculture has become a must-see event. Read More
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
ManagementCropLife Retail Week: On The Road Edition
February 20, 2015
Editors Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj discuss their recent trips to the National Farm Machinery Show in Louisville and the Read More
Crop InputsLand O’Lakes Acquires FLM+ Assets
February 19, 2015
FLM+ will become a wholly owned subsidiary of Land O'Lakes, Inc., and the company will retain its employee base after closing of the deal, which is scheduled for the second quarter of the year. Read More
Seed/BiotechUnited Suppliers, Stine Seed Form Marketing Alliance
February 19, 2015
The new alliance will greatly expand sales opportunities for Stine Seed with the United Supplier Seed Link Owners. Read More
Crop InputsVilsack To Deliver Commodity Classic Keynote Address
February 19, 2015
The secretary will deliver a keynote address to several thousand farmers and ag allies during the event's General Session, to be held Friday, February 27, in Phoenix, AZ. Read More
Crop InputsSoybean Storage Tips
February 19, 2015
On-farm storage of soybeans requires some special considerations compared to corn. Read More
Monsanto Sign
Crop InputsBioAg Alliance Delivers Promising Field Trial Results
February 19, 2015
In its first full year of field trials, the BioAg Alliance reported that the top 10 microbial strains tested in corn and soybeans showed very promising results. Read More
National Farm Machinery Show overview
EquipmentNational Farm Machinery Show Attendance Up By 16K
February 18, 2015
The 2015 event saw the second highest attendance total of all time as 310,589 attendees that included exhibitors and agribusiness professionals traveled to the Kentucky Exposition Center to participate in the nation’s largest indoor ag trade show. Read More
EquipmentHagie Captures Three 2015 AE50 Awards
February 18, 2015
Hagie Mfg.’s Cover Crop Interseeder (CCI), High Speed Toolbar (HsTB) and STS with Tracks were presented with 2015 AE50 outstanding innovations awards at the 2015 ASABE Agricultural Equipment Technology Conference in Louisville, KY. Read More