Will Gas Crunch Harm Farmers?

A cold winter across the U.S. and the Great Lakes region has placedincreased demand on natural gas supplies for heating. But that demandcould soon hurt Midwest corn farmers. The Great Lakes RadioConsortium’s Mary Jo Wagner reports:


A cold winter across the U.S. and the Great Lakes region has placed increased demand on
natural gas supplies for heating. But that demand could soon hurt Midwest corn farmers.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Jo Wagner reports.

Growing corn requires a great deal of nitrogen. That’s because unlike many other crops,
corn can’t take nitrogen out of the air. So farmers must *add* nitrogen by fertilizing their
fields. There are two ways they typically do this — by spreading manure, or applying
some form of anhydrous ammonia.
The problem is, natural gas is used to produce anhydrous ammonia. And with high
natural gas prices this winter, fertilizer companies have been making more money selling
their natural gas supply to utilities FOR HOME HEATING than producing fertilizer. So
that has left corn growers wondering whether there will be any fertilizer for them when
they start planting their crops this spring. Bob Olson is the Executive Director of
Wisconsin’s corn grower’s association.

“We’ve lost 2 months production – Nov. Dec. and part of January production on
all kinds of nitrogen fertilizer so the pipeline has some nitrogen in it. I don’t think
anybody knows how much and I don’t know how full the storages are.”

One sign of a possible shortage is the current price for fertilizer
double last year’s price, according to university of wisconsin corn
agronomist Joe Lauer. Even so, he’s skeptical about claims of a shortage.

“Every year it seems like there’s some sort of scare out there generated from any
number of sources – last year it was a drought situation.the year before that something
else, this year it’s nitrogen.”

To be on the safe side, Lauer says farmers should not wait
until spring planting time to see if there’ll be fertilizer to

“I think if a grower can lock in some prices and supply, he should do it.”

Corn grower Bob Olson has already locked in his supply of liquid
nitrogen–but it’s only 28 percent nitrogen the rest is water.
The normally cheaper anhydrous ammonia has an 80 percent concentration.
Luckily, Olson says, in some areas there’s still natural fertilizer.

“We’re still an animal state..just barely those dairy farmers we haven’t driven
out of Wisconsin are still in business. We still have beef cattle, sheep and hogs and that
manure very effectively is a natural fertilizer. If we don’t have that, we have to substitute
with the elemental fertilizers – nitrogen,
phoshorous and potash.”

Meanwhile, Purdue University Specialists in Indiana worry that
some farmers in the Great Lakes Region may switch to
soybeans since that plant doesn’t need the expensive added
nitrogen. But they say such drastic measures are not needed.
They suggest simply using slightly lower-than-recommended doses
of nitrogen. While that may hurt yield, they say there’s a
potential for record low corn prices to rise because of the latest pressure
on fertilizer prices.

There is some evidence meanwhile that worries about the natural
gas supply may be leveling off — one of the largest anhydrous
ammonia manufacturers in Oklahoma says it will restart
production of fertilizer over the next few weeks.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mary Jo Wagner.