Fertilizer Industry At A Crossroads Once More

There’s an age-old proverb that looks at many of life’s biggest decisions as a series of forked paths. It’s up to the traveler to choose which road will be taken, thereby setting in motion a whole course of events.

In my 13 years of covering the ag retail marketplace, I witnessed many such crossroad events such as the StarLink biotech incident of the early 2000s and the widespread acceptance of smartphones to perform many agronomic operations.

But now, it seems that the industry is at another fork in the road. This one involves ag retailers that sell fertilizer and how (or if) they handle ammonium nitrate in the future.

By now, most everyone in the ag retail business is aware of what happened at the West Fertilizer Co. facility back on April 17. A fire at this plant resulted in an explosion that killed 14 people, injured more than 200 and destroyed a good portion of the town of West, TX, in the process. At presstime, investigators were still uncertain what caused the explosion, but most of the circumstantial evidence points to the more than 200 tons of ammonium nitrate the company had on hand as the culprit.

As many industry experts have pointed out since the West Fertilizer tragedy, ammonium nitrate is generally safe when handled and stored properly. However, it can become explosive when exposed to some kind of accelerant such as propane or fuel oil, which easily could have been the case in this particular plant fire.

Naturally since this event occurred, CropLife® magazine has received many e-mails commenting on the West Fertilizer situation. The vast majority of these have pointed out all the shortcomings of the plant’s owners in filing proper safety paperwork with regulators as part of the problem (since many of these documents indicated non-explosive anhydrous ammonia, not ammonium nitrate was at the plant).

But there seems to be a crossroads feel to many of these notes. Some have openly called for agriculture to drop the use of ammonium nitrate altogether. “I do not think as an industry we can risk ammonium nitrate anymore,” wrote one e-mailer.

Still, another e-mailer pointed out that ammonium nitrate remains a vital fertilizer in many parts of the country where soil conditions are poor. “There is no substitute in agriculture for ammonium nitrate, particularly for pastures and hayfields,” wrote Mark Egan of Black Prairie Agriculture.

In response to these opposing e-mails, our e-newsletter recently asked readers if agriculture should drop ammonium nitrate. Somewhat surprisingly, the percentages were nearly identical, with 43% saying ammonium nitrate should be dropped and another 40% saying no it shouldn’t.

What these results tell me is that the industry is deeply divided over ammonium nitrate at the moment — a definite crossroads event. It will be interesting to see which path ag retailers ultimately take once the dust settles a little bit more in West, TX.   

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