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An end date to higher fertilizer prices is unknown, AFBF economists say

The 2008-09 price spike lasted 18-24 months.

It’s well known that farmers will have to pay more to produce this year’s crops.

Farmers attending this week’s American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual convention want to know how long the input price hike will last.

Due to a 2021 spike in global demand for fertilizer as global supply fell, the price of some crop nutrients jumped as much as 150% year-over-year.

For months, many experts have been explaining that there’s a hungrier world that needs an increase in crop production.

The demand side of the fertilizer story is easier to tell than the supply side, experts say. 

It’s the supply side of the fertilizer story that begins to flush out the real issues of higher prices. 

A Global Commodity

While the U.S. is the third largest producer of fertilizers in the the world, it uses only 10% of the world’s fertilizer supplies.

However, because U.S. farmers lead the world in corn and soybean production, the country’s use of fertilizer outstrips its production. In fact, 70% of the U.S. nutrient use can be credited to the production of corn, soybeans, and wheat. 

Therefore, the U.S. is a net importer of fertilizer.

The key to knowing when the current price spike will end involves knowing the future pattern of global fertilizer demand and the extent of the world’s largest fertilizer producers’ reliance on supply, according to AFBF economists.

“It’s worth noting that not only does fertilizer use vary around the world, but production varies as well,” Veronica Nigh, American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) senior economist, told the convention attendees in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday.  

In the realm of nitrogen fertilizer, Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia remain the largest exporters. 

Phosphate fertilizer exports are led by China, Morocco, and Russia. 

In the potassium market, Canada, Belarus, and Russia lead the global exports.

“Even the largest producers are only producing 10%-25% of the world’s needs. So, that means you can have disruptions in a lot of different places that end up having an impact on fertilizer availability and prices in that country of production and users around the world,” Nigh says.

Acreage Increase

Looking back, there was a grocery list of factors that assisted in the 2021 spike in crop nutrient prices. For example, weather-induced plant disruptions, COVID-19, trade waivers, trucking issues, fertilizer plant maintenance delays, and global supply/demand factors, all combined to form a perfect storm for higher crop production costs.

Going forward, an increase in U.S. and global acreage could keep fertilizer prices from falling, AFBF economists say.

“Our (U.S.) planted acreage is up, but global planted acreage is up, too. If you look at our competitors such as Argentina and Brazil, they have had tough growing seasons. Now, they will have to increase fertilizer usage in order to get the yield they are looking for,” says Shelby Swain Myers, AFBF economist.

Myers added, “That global demand has driven farmers to say, ‘I need more fertilizer.’”

Price Hike

From September 2020 to September 2021, prices in the U.S. for ammonia increased 210%, liquid nitrogen rose 159%, urea increased 155%, potash was up 134%, MAP increased 125%, and DAP rose 100%, according to an AFBF report. The rising input costs, which account for 15% of total cash costs on U.S. farms according to the AFBF, are expected to remain high through spring 2022 due to a shortage of fertilizer supply.

Natural Gas

As natural gas prices go, so go fertilizer prices.

Between 75% and 90% of the costs to produce nitrogen are related to natural gas, AFBF economists say.

As the pandemic cut use of natural gas, plants cut back on the volume of the fuel. Meanwhile, as 2022 gets underway and the economy is recovering from the pandemic, demand for natural gas is going higher.

“Natural gas production, like its usage, is a global issue,” Swain Myers says. In the European Union, natural gas prices have increased over 300% since March of 2021. So, EU’s nitrogen producers are shutting down, due to the sharp increase in raw material. These prices are being passed along to end users. And, this is not just a nitrogen story, it’s a phosphorous story, a potassium story, and unfortunately these prices are being passed on to the U.S.”

Price Outlook

Following the two AFBF economists’ presentation in Atlanta, the first farmer question focused on the outlook for the end to the fertilizer price hike.

U.S. retailers are not expecting a major shortfall of product for 2022’s planting season, AFBF economists say.

“They (retailers) just can’t operate with a 110% supply expectation when there could be disruptions globally,” Swain Myers says.

While some experts see this sharply higher fertilizer price environment lasting for the next six months, others remain uncertain.

“We talked about the 2008-09 fertilizer price spike and how that resolved itself after 18-24 months; with this one we don’t know. There are a lot of issues. You solve one problem and another one pops up,” Nigh says.   

“We should keep in mind that additional antidumping and countervailing duties were put on some imports of fertilizer into the U.S., this past year. That is not helping. That is something that we should find some resolution on, regarding the fertilizer sector,” Nigh told the AFBF convention attendees.

Also, farmers who normally buy production material at the end of each year for tax purposes were not able to do that, in the same way, in 2021.

In addition, crop prices are telling farmers to increase acreage, creating more demand for fertilizer use.

“We’re really going to have a lot of farmers and ranchers look at their books a lot harder this year, analyze that return on investment, and analyze break-even levels. Frankly, right now, input prices are taking a lot of momentum out of the increased crop prices. And, now we are barely breaking even again,” Nigh says.

Nigh added, “It’s a punch in the gut to look at all of that potential increase (in profit) having to go into crop inputs.”  

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