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Rising fertilizer prices causing quite a stink

It seems the only thing these days generating more media buzz than the light brown apple moth is rising fertilizer prices.

Hardly a week goes by that I am not contacted by a curious reporter asking how long is this going to continue and where's the ceiling? They seem to get a bit frustrated when I tell them there's no light at the end of the tunnel.

Market experts do not see fertilizer prices decreasing in the foreseeable future. Indications are that in recent years prices have doubled and even tripled. The simple answer is that this is the result of increased acreage and the production of ethanol-based crop production in the Midwest and other parts of the country, as well as increased production of major crops on a global basis in India, China and Brazil.

Another big reason is that high energy prices also have affected the availability of natural gas, which can be sold more profitably as fuel than as a key ingredient in the production of nitrogen-based fertilizers.

An additional factor is that foreign governments understand that there's a fundamental need for countries to establish and maintain independence and economic growth through providing a plentiful food supply that is reasonably priced. This fundamental need has been largely ignored by our own federal government.

Foreign governments' understanding of this fact has led them to actively engage in the purchase and sale of fertilizer commodities for their growers. Some governments who were fertilizer exporters are now, in order to assure plentiful supplies for their growers, placing stiff tariffs on fertilizers. One example is China, which recently placed a 100 percent price tariff on fertilizer exports.

Obviously, farmers need fertilizers to grow crops. Growers can change the type of fertilizers they buy to utilize lower cost products, but then they run the risk of seeing lower yields. And on the global stage foreign growers enjoy a competitive advantage because their regulations aren't as stringent as those in the U.S. These countries' regulations are often so lax that foreign growers don't have to address the environmental or food safety issues that U.S. growers do. Because of these global pressures, any additional increase in the cost of production is heavily felt, especially by California growers who labor under some of the costliest fertilizer and pesticide regulations in the world.

All the recent curiosity and media attention focused on rising fertilizer prices has prompted The Fertilizer Institute in Washington, D.C., a close ally of WPHA, to print up thousands of brochures explaining the reasons behind the increases.

“Average prices paid by U.S. farmers for the major fertilizer nutrients reached the highest level on record in March, 2008, 168 percent higher than the January 2000 level, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” the brochure notes on its introductory page. “Overall, world nitrogen demand grew by 14 percent, phosphate demand grew by 13 percent and potash demand grew by 19 percent from fiscal year 2001 to 2006. China, India and Brazil are the three largest contributors to the growth in world nutrient demand,” the pamphlet points out.

For those readers interested in learning more about the rising fertilizer price issue, you can read this six-page brochure by visiting the following link:

High pesticide numbers linked to data error

I'll wrap up with this last item that found some officials at the California Department of Pesticide Regulation embarrassed and chagrined.

It seems what appeared to be a major increase in the use of a weed killer in San Mateo County actually was a giant blunder by the state. The state's most recent data on pesticide usage in the county measured an alarming spike in the spraying of Oryzalin, from 1,900 pounds in 2005 to a whopping 105,000 pounds the following year.

After an inquisitive reporter from the San Francisco Examiner contacted DPR about the huge increase, the agency launched an investigation into the matter.

“Many errors result when a decimal point is misplaced, or when the use is reported in gallons of product used when it actually was ounces,” Veda Federighi, DPR assistant director for external affairs, told the Examiner. “The latter occurred in this instance.”

The actual numbers? Only 1,507 pounds of Oryzalin were used in the county in 2006, a drop from the previous year. The total for all “most toxic” pesticides used in 2006 is now 153,500 pounds rather than 257,000, also a decrease from the previous year.

DPR is to be commended for ferreting out this mistake. And, best of all, the correction more than likely brought smiles to the faces of workers at Pacific Gas & Electric, Caltrain, and Caltrans — agencies originally believed to be the spray-happy culprits.

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