This increase is considerably higher than for other prices across the economy. From the third quarter of 2019 to the same period this year, the average price of two of the most widely used types of fertilizer, diammonium phosphate (DAP) and potash, doubled in cost, according to an analysis of DTN/The Progressive Farmer fertilizer price data by Investigate Midwest. In contrast, overall inflation in that period was 20%.
But the most significant price increase over that same time period has been for anhydrous ammonia, an effective and widely used nitrogen fertilizer. The price of anhydrous ammonia fertilizer increased by 152%.
“This is not normal,” said Lillibridge, who also is a member of the board of directors for the Iowa Corn Growers Association. “In years past, we’ve had a pretty good idea what we could buy fertilizer for in the fall and what we could buy it for in the spring.”
He said that’s a burden for farmers because they have had to triple their fertilizer budget. If they had planned to invest $400,000, that means they now have to spend $1.2 million, he explained.
“I hear more of my farmer friends say, ‘I don’t even know why I do this anymore,’” Lillibridge said.
Frustrations with a concentrated market
Multiple factors influence the price of fertilizers.
The price of natural gas, which is used in nitrogen-based fertilizers production, affects the cost, as do farmers’ returns. When farmers make more money, fertilizer companies charge more, agricultural economist Carl Zulauf said.
Higher grain prices — from corn to wheat to sunflower oil — have boosted farmers’ profits to nearly $161 billion this year, up 14% from the previous year, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates.
“We as farmers feel very offended that just because corn prices went up, the fertilizer prices went up,” said Dennis Friest, Iowa Corn Growers Association president, attributing price increases to a concentrated fertilizer market made up of a few giant players. “They have total control over whatever price they charge.”
The report even warned of concentration: “These companies’ possession of scarce resources, often in other countries, and control over critical production, transportation, and distribution channels raises heightened risks relating to concentration and competition,” it read.
Wes Shoemyer, a former state senator in Missouri and a corn farmer who said the high prices made him find a biological alternative to fertilizer from a company named Pivot Bio, said he thinks the Biden administration should investigate the concentrated market.
“We have to enforce the antitrust rules,” he said. “We’re seeing this administration become more aggressive on many antitrust laws.”
A year of cash flow for manufacturers
Although the rise in fertilizer prices has hurt farmers, it has led fertilizer manufacturers to record triple-digit profit increases for most of this year, according to reports that Mosaic and CF Industries filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Canadian company Nutrien publishes on its website.
For example, Mosaic’s net earnings totaled $842 million in the first nine months of 2022, representing an increase in profits of 217% over the same amount of time last year. A company’s net earnings indicate how much money it made in a given period after factoring in expenses, like operating costs.
Mosaic did not return requests for comment.
CF Industries and Nutrien also saw windfalls. CF Industries reported more than $2.49 billion over the first nine months of 2022 — a 1,075% bump compared to the same amount of time last year.
When asked about its earnings, a CF industries spokesperson pointed to a post on its website. The post said prices for nitrogen fertilizer, the company’s focus, are determined by high natural gas prices.
“European natural gas prices have hit record highs in early March 2022 due to the uncertainty created by the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, which is a major supplier of natural gas to Europe” the post reads in part. “This affects prices worldwide.”
Nutrien also pointed to a post on its website explaining key drivers of fertilizer costs, including natural gas prices. The company’s president and CEO, Ken Seitz, touted his company’s high earnings in a press release: “Nutrien has delivered record earnings in 2022 due to the strength of agriculture fundamentals, higher fertilizer prices and excellent retail performance.”
In their reports, the companies mentioned that high fertilizer prices have caused farmers to buy less fertilizer. However, this drop in sales does not affect their earnings growth.
“They make excuses for price gouging,” said Joe Maxwell, president of Farm Action and former Democratic lieutenant governor of Missouri. “They have blamed high natural gas prices. They blamed hurricanes in Louisiana and Florida, and they blamed COVID. … The truth is that they’re exhibiting monopolistic practices within the marketplace.”
This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and the Society of Environmental Journalists, funded by the Walton Family Foundation.
Investigate Midwest is an independent, nonprofit newsroom. Its mission is to serve the public interest by exposing dangerous and costly practices of influential agricultural corporations and institutions through in-depth and data-driven investigative journalism. Visit online at www.investigatemidwest.org.