Low fall fertilizer sales spur 2009 supply concerns

(Resource News International) — Reduced demand in Canada for fertilizer this fall has sparked concerns about supply shortages in 2009.

“Farmers are trying to wait as long as they can to see if prices will keep coming down and yet, on the other side of the coin, there is the concern about whether or not the supply will be there in the springtime when they do need it,” said farmer Greg Marshall, a vice-president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan (APAS).

If everyone waits until spring to buy fertilizer, there will be tremendous demand in Canada and supplies may be short, Marshall said.

Ken Ball, a Winnipeg-based commodities broker with Union Securities, said input retailers typically sell fertilizer through the fall and winter, leaving only 30 to 40 per cent of the market to supply in the springtime.

“This year they may have to sell to 70 per cent of the market and they won’t have enough inventory on hand to meet that demand and they could run out at times,” said Ball.

Similar sentiments have been voiced by fertilizer companies. Agrium’s 2008 third-quarter earnings report, for example, said, “The late harvest and recent declines in crop prices are expected to result in North American growers deferring a higher proportion of their fertilizer application to early next year, placing that much more pressure on the distribution system next spring.”

However, falling fertilizer prices have started to generate sales in Western Canada, according to Ball, who said clients of his purchased nitrogen fertilizer for as low as $520 per tonne last week.

“But of course, as every day goes by with wheat pushing for $4 a bushel and canola pushing for who knows what, farmers’ ability to pay even the current fertilizer prices is diminishing,” he added.

The outlook for fertilizer prices began to weaken this fall as countries began to really feel the impact of the global economic slowdown and as supply/demand expectations changed.

This has convinced many Prairie farmers to refrain from buying in case prices fall further off the record levels reached this summer.

According to Statistics Canada’s industrial product price index, fertilizer prices in Canada increased 53 per cent during the first nine months of 2008.

Market stability wanted

A report released in November by the International Fertilizer Industry Association (IFA) says due to depressed market conditions during the latter half of 2008, global fertilizer consumption in 2008-09 is tentatively forecast to decline 2.2 per cent to 165 million tonnes, down from 168.7 million in 2007-08.

For calendar year 2009, IFA says, “After a likely depressed first half of 2009, demand could possibly recover during the second half of the year.”

Farmers’ and distributors’ ability to access credit will partially determine demand moving forward.

Because of rapid price fluctuations, farmers may also hesitate before jumping into the fertilizer market. Many may prefer to wait for a more stable environment.

Tied to this is the fact that buyers are reluctant to buy if they believe values are still falling, which Ball and Marshall believe has already impacted fall fertilizer demand in Canada.

Also, with grain and oilseed prices having fallen off dramatically in the 2008-09 growing season, many producers will be less willing or unable to afford as much fertilizer.

In Canada, low prices and the prospect of a “mammoth” carryover may cause farmers to switch a record amount of acreage out of canola in favour of crops that require less fertilizer, which would also scale back demand.

“There is definitely an opportunity to cut their fertilizer usage by a substantial amount by trimming a huge number of canola acres out of their rotations. I think they will do it. We need to drop canola acres probably by about 30 per cent and we have never done that before in all history” Ball said.

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