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Skyrocketing fertilizer prices have American farmers on edge

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Posted at 1:43 PM, Apr 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-07 13:43:21-04

WAXAHACHIE, Tex. — The mud under his cowboy boots is so thick, John Paul Dineen jokes he's grown "about three inches," since spring has arrived in North Texas.

With it comes the start of the growing season for this 48-year-old farmer.

"I don’t get too excited when we’ve had a dry spell as long as we’ve had," Dineen said looking around his fields.

He is not a third, fourth, or even fifth-generation farmer. He is the first person in his family to take on this noble American calling and like farmers across the country is being hit hard by the skyrocketing cost of fertilizer.

"All of the inputs have gone crazy," he said.

This lifelong Texan farms a few hundred acres of land 50 miles south of Dallas. A crisscrossing patchwork of fields where rows of corn are just starting to make their first appearance of the season. A recent rain was welcomed news to this farmer.

"We have a long way to go before this crop is made and a lot more is needed to do," he said looking around at the rows of corn he recently planted.

But a seven-year drought is far from Dineen's biggest concern this growing season. The prices of the fertilizer he depends on to feed his crops have skyrocketed due to inflation, supply chain issues and the war in Ukraine.

"Without nutrients that plant goes into salvage mode," Dineen explains.

Last year, nitrogen fertilizer cost Dineen about $380 a ton. This year, the same nitrogen he needs is going for $1,200 a ton, about a 215% increase.

"To break even, we’ll have to make a decent crop and that’s not a good place to be in," he lamented.

As a fast-growing leafy crop, corn is pretty low-maintenance. But, a good dose of nitrogen will help raise the level of nutrients in the soil to help create a better growing environment for the plant. Which produces more healthy stalks.

One sprout of corn is so vitally important to the U.S. economy that the USDA is now offering $250 million in grants to increase American fertilizer production.

Brant Wilbourn with Texas Farm Bureau sees the program as a necessary step to protect farmers from problems out of their control.

"Everybody eats and it’s going to impact everyone," Wilbourn said.

Those grants offered by the USDA to increase fertilizer production here in the United States won’t help farmers right now. But increased domestic production of fertilizer over the next few years will better insulate the agriculture industry from skyrocketing production costs in the future.

"If we can have those innovative solutions brought forward it would definitely help," Wilbourn said.

Even as a first-generation farmer, Dineen has learned uncertainty is about the only certainty out here. He’s just waiting for more favorable winds to blow his way.

"It’s economics. What do you think you’re gonna make and will you ever get it all back?"