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Farmers fret over fertilizer prices

BY JAMES HANNAH Associated Press Writer DAYTON, Ohio (AP) -- The skyrocketing cost of natural gas, which is used to make fertilizer, may force some Ohio farmers to plant less corn this year or switch to soybeans.

That could result in reduced yields, a change in market prices, and a nail-biting decision on which crop to grow as spring planting season approaches, agricultural officials said Wednesday.

``The price of fertilizer has gone sky high and out of sight,'' said Jeff Layman, extension agent for Miami County north of Dayton. ``Combined with that is the inability of the suppliers to even guarantee delivery. That puts people in a real quandary when it comes to corn production.''

Corn requires nitrogen-based fertilizer to grow well. Layman said it is not unusual for a corn farmer to use 200 pounds of fertilizer per acre.

Natural gas provides the hydrogen used, through a chemical reaction, to make the fertilizer.

If farmers choose to grow corn without fertilizer, they will have lower yields, he said. The other option is to switch to soybeans, which do not require nitrogen fertilizer.

``You'll see some acreage change,'' he said.

Cecil Boes, who grows corn and soybeans on his 1,000-acre farm in northwest Ohio's Hancock County, said he has not yet bought his fertilizer. But he said he plans to stick to his regular crop rotation -- 475 acres each of corn and soybeans.

``Economically, I don't think it's past the point of switching over to soybeans instead of corn,'' Boes said. ``But it's getting mighty close.''

Mike Sollars, who grows corn and soybeans on 3,600 acres in southern Ohio's Fayette County, decided to go ahead and buy fertilizer earlier this month even though he had to pay a significant amount more than he did last year.

Sollars said the expense will probably reduce his net profit, but he was worried that the price of fertilizer will continue to escalate.

``It just keeps getting higher,'' he said.

Allan Lines, an agricultural economist at Ohio State University, said the cost of nitrogen fertilizer is two to two-and-a-half times more than it was last year. And he said the evidence suggests there could be as much as 20 percent less fertilizer available to farmers this spring.

Lines agreed that the high prices probably will cause farmers to plant less corn or shift from corn to soybeans.

Assuming normal yields, he said, there could be 10 percent more soybeans grown in Ohio this year and 10 percent less corn. Ohio's crop is usually 50 percent soybeans, 40 percent corn and 10 percent wheat.

Lines said a switch in production in Ohio and the major corn- and soybean-producing states could result in ``mountains of soybeans and a diminishing supply of corn.''

``This might be a year where the price of corn and beans are the same,'' he said.

Currently, a bushel of corn sells for about $1.90, while soybeans sell for $4.50 a bushel.

But a farmer can produce three times as many bushels of corn per acre than soybeans. And soybean yields can be iffy because soybeans are more susceptible to insect and disease problems than corn.

Lines said the real pressure on farmers will come when they have to make a decision on whether to plant corn or soybeans, not knowing what the price of fertilizer will be when it's delivered or if they can get it at all.

``That's the anxiety,'' he said.

Doug Brown, who farms about 1,400 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat in northern Ohio's Huron County, is among the lucky ones. Brown ordered and paid for fertilizer last fall before natural-gas prices skyrocketed.

``Good move,'' said Brown, who plans to plant his usual mix of 600 acres apiece of corn and soybeans and 200 acres of wheat. ``I would say the majority of smaller farmers are in trouble.''

-- Martin Thompson (, January 25, 2001

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