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Following fertilizer

Weather and war, strikes and sickness, backlogs and breakdowns, tight supply and high demand.

As agricultural fertilizer makes its long, complex journey through the logistics chain, there are multiple steps along the way, many different people involved and plenty of obstacles to overcome.

Still, somehow, that fertilizer arrives on the farm each spring, nourishing the crops that provide food, feed, fiber and fuel for the world.

“It’s crucial that our growers have the commod­ities they need to produce the best crop they can,” said Greg Straus, manager of MFA Incorporated’s Plant Foods facility in Palmyra, Mo., located on the Mississippi River. “With the equipment the farm­ing community has now, they can plant a lot of acres very quickly. The timing of the planting season has become smaller and smaller, and everything has to work perfectly to get the product out in a timely fashion. Farmers can’t wait two or three days on their fertilizer to be delivered.”

While plant food is mainly top of mind for farmers in the spring and fall, its components are being produced, purchased and moved year-round. Fertilizer manufacturing facilities typically operate 24/7, 365 days a year all around the world. Proactive planning and coordination are key to trans­porting fertilizer from global and domestic supply origins to retailers and farmers across each state. Most of the nutrients ap­plied to crops in the U.S. are moved by marine vessels, barges, railcars and trucks months in advance.

“There’s a lot that goes on before product is ever in our building,” Straus said. “You’re talking 30 days to get a barge here from the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the time, those barges are dropped off in St. Louis. Then you’re looking at another five to 10 days before they start heading northbound. There are five locks between here and St. Louis, which makes everything more time consuming. If they shut the river down or have problems at the lock, that shipment can get delayed. From there, we deal with our local towing company, get the barges spotted, and then we start unloading. We’re pretty efficient once we get our hands on it. We can unload about 1,600 tons in about six hours.”

flowchart 994x600Fertilizer goes through complex journey from the manufacturing plant to the farm. This flowchart is a typical path for dry fertilizers such as potash, phosphates and urea, although the steps may vary based on the product and its origin.

No matter the season, plant food buyers for wholesale and retail operations such as MFA Incorporated are continually planning, contracting, staging and transporting to have the right product in the right place at the right time for end users. De­spite this spring’s supply and pricing challenges, Chris DeMoss, director of MFA Incorporated’s Plant Foods Division, said the cooperative is well positioned to serve the fertilizer needs of its customers. The cooperative has an expansive footprint and extensive distribution network that includes river terminals, regional warehouses and more than 127 retail locations.

“Our team has been working hard over the past year to have product in place for the spring season,” DeMoss said. “From a fertilizer standpoint, our storage capacity at Caruthersville, Palmyra and Inola and our joint venture with AGRIServices of Brunswick provided us an opportunity to position plant foods early on. Plus, there was a fair amount of fieldwork done this fall. While there are no guarantees, I believe MFA is as well prepared as anyone in our trade area.”

However, having fertilizer on hand is only as good as the ability to get it to farmers when and where they need it.

“No matter what product we’re talking about, there’s a finite number of vessels, barges, railcars and trucks,” DeMoss said. “Each of these modes of transportation is limited, and fertilizer competes with other commodities and goods for access.”

During the busiest seasons of spring and fall, storage at MFA warehouses and terminals is depleted as fertilizer is bought by farmers and transported to the farm. In the summer and winter, storage at warehouses and terminals is replenished in prepara­tion for the next spring planting or fall harvest season.

“You’ve got to have a crystal ball to be able to figure out what you’re going to need, and you’ve got to consider the market, too,” Straus said. “A lot of things have to fall into place. Every lit­tle step is just so important to get the product to the farmer, and there’s a lot of moving parts to it that not everybody realizes.”

Despite the best efforts of MFA’s plant foods team, however, sometimes Mother Nature throws a wrench into their well-oiled machine. Fertilizer transportation is especially vulnerable to floods or droughts that alter river levels and stop barge traffic. 

“Seems like we’re always juggling the weather,” Straus said. “A few years ago, we had some high water in December that shut us down for a couple of weeks. There have also been times in the spring when we’ll put our floodgate in, take all our motors off the dock and be down for a week. We’ll put everything back on and be able to run for two days and take it all right back off again. But that’s 3,000 tons we can put in the bin. We consid­er it’s always worth doing, just to keep everybody going for a couple of days. Everyone realizes how important is to get that product in the farmer’s hands.”

Like many industries, labor shortages have also plagued the fertilizer world. Each link in the supply chain relies on a number of people—manufacturing employees, product buyers, stevedoring specialists, quality-control inspectors, crane opera­tors, loaders and unloaders and many others.

“There’s a person involved in every step along the way,” DeMoss said. “One kink in that chain makes a difference. What if someone is sick? Or your crew is too short-staffed to unload a barge? When you’re in season, going through 4,800 truckloads in a 30-day period, a couple of days down can mean big trouble.”

Truck drivers, in particular, have been hard to find, he add­ed. Every ton of fertilizer is going to move via truck at some point—from the manufacturer to the barge or rail terminal, from the barge or railcar to the warehouse, from the warehouse to the retail store and eventually to the farmer. Those shipments need reliable drivers.

“Our Home Office team does a great job of getting different trucking companies involved and developing relationships so we can depend on them,” Straus said. “My hat’s off to them, districts because I know it’s a struggle to keep everything moving. When the trucks get here at our facility, we feel com­pelled to get them loaded and back out on the road as quickly as possible. Generally, in 10 or 15 minutes, we’ll have a truck loaded and on the scales.”

Inland waterway transportation is also critical to fertilizer movement. With the Mississippi River flanking Missouri’s eastern border, the Missouri River snaking through the state’s interi­or and the Arkansas River to the west, barge-unloading points are strategically placed throughout MFA territory.

“One of the big reasons the United States became such a strong agricul­tural country—in addition to our land—is our waterway system,” said Corey Rosenbusch, president and CEO of The Fertilizer Institute. “Unlike a lot of other places in the world, we have rivers that run right through the heart­land of our country, where our crops are grown, and that allows us access to both get nutrients into the farm as well as the grain off the farm.”

The sheer volume of product that can be moved by barge versus truck makes this mode of transportation cheaper while reducing truck conges­tion and fuel consumption.

“Moving product by barge is so much more efficient,” Straus said. “For instance, a tow can push 15 barges, which is more than 22,000 tons of fertilizer. It takes about 44 gallons of fuel to move a mile on a tugboat. If you want to move 22,000 tons of fertilizer with trucks, it would take roughly 800 gallons of fuel per mile to move the same amount of fertilizer.”

As far as volume goes, railcars are the next-most efficient mode of transpor­tation. One railcar carries the same amount of fertilizer as four truckloads. While some plant food ingredients still come in and go out of MFA facilities this way, DeMoss said rail is becoming less important to the cooperative than it used to be.

“We’re not doing as much rail these days, simply because of access and economics,” DeMoss said. “A lot of the short lines are shut down. Rail is con­cerned about long haul, because that’s where the money is. That’s where it’s more efficient.”

Whether river, rail or road, moving fer­tilizer around the country requires sound infrastructure. Unfortunately, many of these structures are aging and crumbling, Rosen­busch said. The Fertilizer Institute has been active in supporting efforts to pass legisla­tion that will provide significant funds to improve U.S. infrastructure, including safer roads, better bridges and more modern inland waterways.

“The recent infrastructure package was a huge win for the industry and something we advocated for in Washington, D.C.,” Rosenbusch said. “We were definitely in favor of the investment in projects such as the lock-and-dam systems in the Up­per Mississippi River. Some of that infra­structure is old and needs maintenance, and we’re really pleased we were able to work with the government to ensure that those projects get prioritized in the first round of funding.”

Infrastructure isn’t the only challenge facing the fertilizer industry this season. Beyond typical weather or manufacturing issues, there is unprecedented pressure on the plant food supply chain due to global events, Rosenbusch said. Russia was the world’s largest exporter of ni­trogen products in 2021, but all exports from the Black Sea are now halted after the country’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine. Russia’s natural gas pipeline, which fuels European nitrogen produc­tion, is also shuttered.

And closer to home, Canadian Pacific Railway workers went on strike in mid-March, seeking wage, pension and benefit improvements. Some 10% to 15% of CP business is fertilizer, and nearly 85% of the potash in the U.S. comes from Canada by rail.

“It’s hard to make farmers understand the market dynamics underlying what the fertilizer industry is currently experienc­ing,” Rosenbusch said. “It’s not just one or two things. It’s about 12 to 14 things that are all colliding at the same time, and more keep getting added. Every day I wake up and wonder what’s going to be the next geopolitical event that will impact the fertil­izer industry.”

With so many factors outside the farmer’s control, Rosenbusch said his message is to focus on what can be managed. It’s more important than ever to look at nutrient stewardship, making sure to apply the right rate of the right product in the right place at the right time.

“Nutrient use efficiency is one of the best things farmers can do, and that’s within their control,” he said. “If you’re not already soil sampling and using variable-rate appli­cations—putting those the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship to work—now is the time to deploy those tools to efficiently use the fertilizer you have.”

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