Fertilizer Market Volatility: The Elephant In The Room

Fertilizer pile

For the second time in three years, retailers are on pins and needles over the state of the fertilizer market, as the usually gentle swing of the market pendulum took a violent swing from bloated, expensive oversupply in 2008 to nail-biting undersupply in the U.S. market in 2010.

This year, it was a perfect storm of historically ideal harvest weather, high crop prices, globalization in agriculture and sensible risk aversion that has left many retailers with the precise opposite problem this fall and winter as existed two season ago — not enough fertilizer to go around. Unfortunately, there isn’t really a lesson to be learned — retailers once again thought they were doing the right thing, only to wind up disheartened, frustrated and searching for answers.

A Sickening Ride

Flash back to the summer of 2008, when retailers followed the well intentioned advice of industry experts and filled their bins to capacity with expensive fertilizer on the understanding that the high prices were not going down anytime soon. Commodity prices were similarly sky high and few people foresaw what was to come — a quick and colossal crash in the price of both fertilizer and grain that would leave retailers holding thousands of tons of overpriced fertilizer that no grower wanted to buy given the price on the open market.

For most retailers, it was a nightmarish time from post-harvest 2008 through the start of 2009, and the options for carrying forth with business largely unpleasant. Tons of fertilizer could be written down, giving back an unhealthy chunk of 2008’s profit. Or retailers could push growers to honor their original commitment, and suffer the slings and arrows of their customers, many of whom failed to sell their crop before the price of grain crashed. And for some businesses, especially smaller cooperatives caught up on the wrong side of the grain market, it meant the end of the line through sale, merger or closure.

Mother Nature also turned against agriculture last fall and winter, delivering moisture and cold that pushed harvests back as much as two months beyond the norm and effectively thwarted fertilizer application season. But mercifully, spring got off to a rapid start and focused retailers and growers on moving forward.

“Last fall we did not get on as much product as we hoped to last year, either anhydrous or dry,” recalls Kevin Mainord, sales and marketing director at MRM Ag Services, East Prairie, MO, who’s story is fairly typical. “We got froze and snowed out and didn’t get a lot of late November and December application. But this spring weather cooperated right away, and April was wide open. We ran like crazy for three or four weeks without weather knocking us out.”

Early in the season, 2010 was shaping up to be a “normal year, whatever that means,” says Jim Howe of Star of the West Milling, Frankenmuth, MI. “Crop prices had fallen, and it looked like that was going to be the trend, and fertilizer prices had stagnated.”

Endless Summer

In the midst of a dry summer that no one knew would last the entire season, Larry Arndt, president of MaxYield Cooperative, West Bend, IA, kept a copy of an article from June 22 in his desk to illustrate the volatility in the market. “The article stated that because of low grain prices, farmers would be cutting back and not spending like they should,” says Arndt. “Farmers would opt for maintenance of fertility because corn was still not profitable. The overall economy of farming was good, but growers in June were saying, ‘let’s stay with what we ordered last year, or maybe we could cut that back a little bit.'”

Additional purchases of fertilizer were made during the summer based on these modest indicators. And remembering the lesson of 2008, many retailers opted to stock up at levels closer to their anticipated need rather than filling up the bin.

“When we get to August and we start to make some new fertilizer purchases for the fall, we have no idea that our growers are about to move from average levels of applications to 25% to 50% higher than average,” says Arndt. “Farmers had backed phosphate and potash off and were looking to maintain and not build. But now yields are coming in and in October, prices are still good and they want to spend money.”

USDA’s lowered harvest projections released in Sep­tember set off a crop price runoff, putting growers in the mindset to buy and build fertility. Normally this would be cause for unbridled celebration, but MaxYield is not alone in having made modest fertilizer commitments for the fall and winter application season.

“It was all good until we got to the point where there was no fertilizer supply out there to replenish our bins,” says Arndt. “Now, we have an extremely aggressive client requesting fertilizer at a rate we have never seen before, but now we are waiting for product.”

To add to the pressure, dry harvest weather in many locations in the Midwest through the fall meant that growers were done and ready for fall application in record time. “In northwest Iowa, we had an open fall with little rain,” says Arndt. “We started harvesting in September and did not stop for more than two or three days. Now the guy is done and the fields are black, we have a potentially huge anhydrous season ahead of us and we are now on allocation. You could have planned for a lot of scenarios, but we’ve never seen anything like this before nor could we have planned for it.”

“The guys I work with on procurement and sales have been in the business for 30 years, and they say they have never seen it this bad,” says Devin Mogler, vice president of agronomy operations for Farmers Cooperative Co., Ames, IA. The company says getting additional supply has been a headache. “Trains have been pushed back and trucks backed up,” he says. “Rather than send us 65 or 85 car units, we are getting spoon fed four to 10 cars at a time, and sometimes even one.” Suppliers had been keeping up so far, but at presstime, Mogler says they were within three to five days of running out based on the amount being applied.

Some Good News

Not all the news is bad. Some retailers did bet on higher consumption and have so far avoided the shortages. “We have been very fortunate up until (early November) all plants were running ,” says Mike Moser, vice president of agronomy at Cooperative Plus, Burlington, WI. “The competitors on all sides of us have been out of product for two or three weeks. We have two trains arriving this afternoon with 5,000 tons of potash to haul in here shortly.

“I think we got a little more aggressive and bought a little more than we needed,” he continues, “but in the end we still needed product. We looked at potash market and decided there was an opportunity for the price to increase. So fortunately we have potash coming in $80 under market, and that should help to have a pretty good year.”

Some won but many are struggling to manage the wild pendulum swings in today’s fertilizer market. With no real tools available to manage the risk, it looks like volatility will be the norm for some time to come.

Leave a Reply

State of the Industry Stories

Liquid Fertilizer Storage tanks
State of the IndustryComplex Fertilizer Market Brings Mixed Feelings
January 5, 2016
Declining fertilizer prices and plentiful supplies should be good news for growers facing low crop prices. But they and their Read More
Asmus Farm Supply crop protection products in storage
State of the Industry2016 Crop Protection Outlook: The Guessing Game
January 4, 2016
One would naturally assume that retail sales of crop protection products in a contracted market would themselves be contracted, but Read More
Seed corn bags in storage
Special ReportsThe Outlook For Seed In 2016
January 3, 2016
Among all crop input categories going into 2016, the seed category has as many questions regarding which direction it will Read More
Wilbur-Ellis’ new fertilizer blending facility, located in Mott, ND, was designed by A.J. Sackett & Sons.
State of the IndustryBuying Intentions Survey: Retailers Taking A Prudent Approach In 2016
January 2, 2016
The CropLife® magazine Buying Intentions Survey made its debut last year to gauge current industry trends against the retailer’s plans Read More
Trending Articles
Matt Hopkins15 Twitter Accounts Every Ag Professional Must Follow
October 13, 2016
What do singer Katy Perry and the President of the United States have in common? They are two of the Read More
AGCO RG700 cab
OpinionRoadblocks To Precision Ag Innovation
October 5, 2016
On August 29, I got to preside over the PrecisionAg Innovation Series event, “Game-Changing Advances in Precision Farming Technology,” developed Read More
J.C. Ramsdell containment system
EquipmentClear Opportunity In The Tank Market
October 4, 2016
Crop prices may be down, but steel prices are too — and that’s good news for retailers looking to add some Read More
WinField booth Farm Progress
Special ReportsTalking Weed Management Strategies At Farm Progress 2016
October 2, 2016
The annual Farm Progress Show — this year staged in Boone, IA — is always a great place to catch Read More
Corn Field
Eric SfiligojFacing Ag Industry Challenges
September 26, 2016
At the 2016 annual Mid America CropLife Association (MACA) meeting in September, a pair of crop protection company representatives discussed Read More
Bayer Monsanto
Crop InputsBayer-Monsanto Mega-Merger: 6 Things You Need To Know
September 14, 2016
Mega mergers have become almost routine in the agricultural industry. Right on the heels of Monday’s news that fertilizer giants Potash Read More
Latest News
Soybean field
Crop InputsIncotec Invests In North America
October 25, 2016
Leading seed enhancement company Incotec, part of Croda, has announced an investment in their North America business. The total investment of Read More
Patriot 25th anniversary
SprayersCase IH Celebrates 25 Years Of Patriot Sprayers At Bens…
October 24, 2016
Case IH executives, employees and special guests celebrated 25 years of production of Case IH Patriot sprayers in a special Read More
4r Nutrient stewardship
StewardshipNominations For The 4R Advocate Program Due October 31
October 24, 2016
Nominations for the 4R Advocate program are due to The Fertilizer Institute by October 31, 2016. The program recognizes agricultural Read More
Corn close up
Eric SfiligojProtecting Agriculture’s Ability To Feed The World
October 24, 2016
The rate of change coming to agriculture is growing, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. This Read More
Student Young Worker CHS
CropLife 100CHS Supports #FirstJob Compact
October 24, 2016
CHS joins the White House and many of the country’s largest employers in signing a new initiative centered on helping Read More
Kennebec Grain terminal
CropLife 100Wheat Growers Kennebec Facility Loads First Rail Cars
October 21, 2016
In a season of firsts for Wheat Growers’ Kennebec Grain Terminal, the first 115-car unit train was loaded with soybeans Read More
ManagementThe Latest Dow-DuPont Rumor, Product of the Year Voting…
October 20, 2016
CropLife Editor Eric Sfiligoj shares a new rumor about the Dow-DuPont merger and updates on two CropLife-driven programs, the CropLife Read More
Soybean Closeup
FungicidesFMC Begins Registration Process For New Fungicide Activ…
October 19, 2016
FMC Agricultural Solutions has begun the joint U.S. EPA and Canadian Pest Management Regulatory Agency registration process for bixafen, a new Read More
Soil Young Corn
Industry NewsAgribusiness Search Firm Appoints New Managing Partner
October 18, 2016
Morris Bixby Group, a leading agribusiness search firm providing the highest quality professional recruiting and career advancement services since 2000, Read More
Wheat Field North Dakota
FertilizerUnited Suppliers Acquires Kansas Fertilizer Business
October 17, 2016
United Suppliers, Inc. has purchased the assets of Evans Enterprises, LLC, an ammonium chloride fertilizer business based in Olathe, KS. Read More
Corn Field
Industry NewsFMC Launches New Operations In Argentina, Exits Joint V…
October 17, 2016
FMC Corp. has exited its joint venture with Ruralco Soluciones S.A. FMC has launched new commercial operations, FMC Quimica S.A., Read More
Dow AgroSciences
InsecticidesRenewed Registration Issued For Products Containing Sul…
October 17, 2016
On October 14, 2016, the U.S. EPA re-established the registration of products containing sulfoxaflor (Isoclast Active), including Transform WG, Closer Read More
Eric SfiligojThe Whys Of Agriculture
October 17, 2016
During 2016, there have been myriad challenges facing the whole agricultural industry. Such wide ranging issues as water protection, sustainable Read More
Young Corn Field
FertilizerImproved Phosphorus Management Essential To Feeding Wor…
October 14, 2016
With a global population expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050, improved management of key essential nutrients such as Read More
ManagementHarvest and Crop Price Updates; EPA and Crop Protection…
October 13, 2016
Glyphosate and atrazine get public comment support from ARA as each is reviewed by EPA, and the latest on the Read More
Matt Hopkins15 Twitter Accounts Every Ag Professional Must Follow
October 13, 2016
What do singer Katy Perry and the President of the United States have in common? They are two of the Read More
Corn Field
Industry NewsArysta LifeScience Adds Two Key Account Managers
October 13, 2016
Arysta LifeScience North America recently announced the addition of two key account managers: Doug Hoberty and Rob Wier. Hoberty and Read More
EquipmentDeere Announces Development Deal with Scherer Design
October 12, 2016
Deere & Co. announces a joint development agreement with Scherer Design Engineering, Inc. to develop and commercialize kernel processing solutions Read More