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Shipments of fertilizer bound for Baltimore are being diverted, which could raise prices.

Chris Torres, Editor, American Agriculturist

April 3, 2024

6 Min Read
A cargo ship crashes into the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, Maryland
CLEARING DEBRIS: Wreckage from the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge rests on the cargo ship Dali as efforts begin to clear the debris and reopen the Port of Baltimore. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

A week after the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, there are signs that shipping channels may be reopening sooner than expected.

Cranes have busy clearing the debris from the Dali, the ship that collided into one of the bridge’s columns in the early-morning hours of March 26, sending the bridge tumbling into the Patapsco River and likely killing six people.

Meanwhile, the effects on agriculture continue to unfold as planting season is just weeks away from starting. Chip Bowling, who grows nearly 2,000 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat in Newburg, Md., is waiting on when he will be able to get his shipment of 30% UAN. He says he got an email from his fertilizer distributor stating that his shipment would be delayed until April 20 or later.

Bowling says the ship carrying his liquid nitrogen was scheduled to be the next ship into the port after the Dali. He says he wanted a few loads of extra nitrogen for the coming growing season — he has enough to topdress wheat. Now, he may have to drive three hours south to Norfolk, Va., to a liquid nitrogen terminal there. He has two tankers of his own, and he can hire out an independent trucker when needed.

“I can certainly go to Norfolk, Va., and it sounds like I just will be,” Bowling says. “It’s going to add a couple of hours to the trucking, but if not, I don’t know where we’re going to get it.”

There’s growing chatter among local growers on the potential impact the port’s closure will have on fertilizer supplies.

“We’re a little nervous about it,” says Eric Rosenbaum, owner of Rosetree Consulting in Shillington, Pa. Most of his customers have already locked in fertilizer for the growing season, but the concern is when they will get it.

Ron Fetrow, eastern Pennsylvania representative for Growmark, described the situation as fluid. The longer the port is closed, the more likely it will lead to supply issues.

“We have enough stored for growers right now, but not for the entire season. We don't have enough product to get us through planting season,” Fetrow says. “We'll be looking at rail, but there could be a switch to dry nitrogen versus the liquid, if necessary."

Fetrow says the company gets products from several sources at the port, including Yara and Meherrin. Some terminals have gone empty, he says, while others are backlogged with trucks. Diverting ships to other ports such as Philadelphia or New Jersey/New York could add an extra $10 to $20 a ton on UAN, he says.

Fetrow says he works with 40 to 50 growers in the region. About half have prepaid for UAN already.

“Many have their tanks full right now but will need additional product,” he says. “If we can get product in the beginning of May, the impact may not be too drastic. The middle or end of May, that will be a problem, and we have no clue what the answer on that will be."

A report by American Farm Bureau Federation says most producers have likely paid for fertilizer and that any shipments could be diverted to other ports. Any diversion, though, will cause headaches and likely higher prices for producers in need of last-minute products.

Allison Stahl, spokesperson for Yara, says the company’s terminal is open to trucks and rail cars, and that product inventory is stable.

“As needed, we will divert vessels to other eastern U.S.-based ports to ensure as minimal of an impact to our customers as possible,” she says.

Richard Wilkins, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Soybean Association, says the port is one of three major offloading sites on the East Coast for dry urea, ammonium nitrate and UAN. Many fertilizer distributors Wilkins has talked to have stated that fertilizer supply in Baltimore is adequate.

“But the longer that things are disrupted, the more severe the long-term impacts could be,” he says.

One distributor Wilkins talked to stated that a UAN shipment going to Philadelphia was going for an extra $10 a ton, which more than likely will be passed onto producers. Ultimately, the impact on producers will depend on who is distributing it.

“The good news is that we were not going into the season with inadequate supply,” he says.

Spotlight on exports

The accident and closure of the port have shined a light on the importance of ag exports and the impact a port closure can have on industry.

“Exports for any of our ag commodities are important. Exports are still 28% to 30% of our market,” Bowling says. “That’s going to affect all of us.

“It doesn’t matter where it’s going; we need to get our products out. We’re below the cost of production right now on any commodity crop. It’s not a good time to be having an issue getting right of our product,” he adds.

Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition in Ankeny, Iowa, says the Port of Baltimore handled 350,000 metric tons of soybeans in 2023, mostly via containers. Soybeans are one of the top five agricultural products going out of the port.

The port pales in comparison to the Gulf of Mexico region, which handled 20 million metric tons of soybeans in 2023. But shipping soybeans in containers, he says, is important for other countries that need smaller amounts of product and for high-value end markets — for example, beans that go for tofu.

Asia, especially Taiwan, has been a leading destination for soybeans coming out of Baltimore, he says. The draw area for these beans are farms in western Maryland, Pennsylvania, and parts of Ohio and Virginia. “It’s going to be pretty close in proximity,” Steenhoek says.

Soybean containers can easily be shifted to other nearby ports, such as the port in Norfolk, Va., Philadelphia or even New York/New Jersey. Ag Source LLC operates a transloading facility right in the Port of Baltimore. Emails to AgSource on the effects of the port’s closure on soybean exports, and possible impacts to growers, were not returned by press time.

Even if it’s small, some farmers will suffer the impact of the port’s closure. But it also begs the question: What if something like this happened at the Port of New Orleans? Steenhoek says the impact would be huge.

“All of that commerce, ultimately, gets concentrated in ports and canals,” he says. “If something would go bad, it can have really profound consequences to our broader economy. That point needs to be reiterated to our leaders.

“I don’t think we treat it [ports] with the kind of seriousness and respect that it really merits,” he adds.

While exports could be diverted to other ports, movement would be limited. The Pacific Northwest could handle some shipments as it connected to the Gulf area by rail. Grain could also theoretically be railed to Mexico, Texas, or even the Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes. But that would come with much higher costs. Nearly 55% of agricultural exports go out of the Gulf of Mexico.

“There’s a cost associated with that; there’s a real inconvenience with that,” Steenhoek says. “So it would be big.”

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Fertilizer

About the Author(s)

Chris Torres

Editor, American Agriculturist

Chris Torres, editor of American Agriculturist, previously worked at Lancaster Farming, where he started in 2006 as a staff writer and later became regional editor. Torres is a seven-time winner of the Keystone Press Awards, handed out by the Pennsylvania Press Association, and he is a Pennsylvania State University graduate.

Torres says he wants American Agriculturist to be farmers' "go-to product, continuing the legacy and high standard (former American Agriculturist editor) John Vogel has set." Torres succeeds Vogel, who retired after 47 years with Farm Progress and its related publications.

"The news business is a challenging job," Torres says. "It makes you think outside your small box, and you have to formulate what the reader wants to see from the overall product. It's rewarding to see a nice product in the end."

Torres' family is based in Lebanon County, Pa. His wife grew up on a small farm in Berks County, Pa., where they raised corn, soybeans, feeder cattle and more. Torres and his wife are parents to three young boys.

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