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Corn-growing farmers hit hard by natural gas product’s cost

By JAN H. KENNEDY Repository staff writer

CANTON -- The shortage of natural gas and the high prices resulting from it have spread their woes from the house into farmers’ fields. Nitrogen, needed in great quantities to grow corn, is selling at almost twice the price it brought last year, said Steve Hoopes of Hoopes Fertilizer Works in Alliance.

“At this time last year, our 28-percent liquid solution of urea nitrogen was selling at $85 to $110 per ton, which will cover about 10 acres for corn,” Hoopes said. “Now, it’s selling for $200 a ton.”

Nitrogen is produced from natural gas. Other fertilizers, such as potash and phosphorous, not dependent upon natural gas, are priced about the same as last year, he said.

For a while, it looked as though nitrogen producers would not be able to meet demand, said Dennis Weilnau, agriculture agent at the Stark-Summit Extension office.

“The industry appears to be gearing up now, so I think we’ll have enough for everyone,” he said. “But the price will be very high.”

Many farmers are cutting back

The high cost of nitrogen is causing many farmers to cut back on the amount of corn they are growing this year in favor of soybeans, which require one-tenth to one-fifteenth as much nitrogen, Hoopes said.

Ohio farmers will plant 3.35 million acres of corn this year, a drop of 6 percent, according to the Ohio Department of Agriculture weekly publication issued March 30. But that probably won’t hold true for Stark County farmers.

“I don’t think we can do that, because we’re mostly dairy in this area,” said Kevin Schmucker, who has a grain and dairy farm at 4756 Lynnhaven Ave. NE in Washington Township. “We have to grow the corn to feed our cattle.”

Schmucker saw signs that the price of fertilizer would rise, and he bought his in December, when the price was about $30 per ton higher than last year.

Some saw it coming

“I think a lot of us (farmers) saw it coming and bought early, but not all of us had the storage space, and (we) couldn’t buy in advance,” he said.

Schmucker plans no cutback in corn this year. He grows about 1,000 acres. His dairy herd is only about 100 cows, so he takes much of his corn to market. That could change next year.

“If the price stays this high, then I might have to cut back on corn and grow more beans next year,” he said. “Apparently a lot of farmers across the nation are doing that this year, because bean seed is hard to find. Someone out there is planning on growing a lot.”

Bill Baker, manager of Surbey Feed Supply in Navarre, sells only bagged fertilizer, and he, like the farmers, is at the mercy of the petroleum companies.

“A customer buying fertilizer for his lawn may need a 5 (nitrogen)-10 (phosphorous)-10 (potash) mixture, and that will be priced a little higher, but nothing like the price for someone buying a high nitrogen concentration, like 46-0-0, will pay,” he said. “But it’s the farmer who really will take the brunt of this because of the volume he needs. This comes at a time when the price for corn is the lowest in 20 years and the farmer is paying a lot more for gas and diesel fuel to run his equipment. I don’t know how they’ll make it.”

Farmers have little choice but to deal with it, said Jim Royer, who operates a dairy and grain farm at 6721 Oakhill Ave. NE in Washington Township with his son, James Jr. Most of the grain he grows is fed to his cattle, but he markets some of it.

“We can’t really back off the corn, but we’re renting a few more acres this year and we’re putting most of it in beans and we’re growing a little more wheat,” he said. “We just have to take the hit. That’s the way it is in this business. We’re hearing that corn may go up a little this year, so that might help a little.”

Royer and Schmucker both took advantage of a special price for off-road diesel fuel. Diesel fuel for off-road use does not carry the state road tax, saving buyers about 25 cents per gallon. The fuel had been selling for $1.26 to $1.29 throughout the winter and early spring, but they found a distributor selling it for 90 cents a gallon.

“That was for a minimum of 150 gallons and cash on the barrelhead, but I’ll gladly pay cash for that price,” Royer said.

The low price may be short-lived, Schmucker said. A production reduction of 5 million barrels of oil a day announced by OPEC ministers two weeks ago is expected to drive the prices of gasoline and diesel fuel up again.

“I’m hearing predictions of $2-a-gallon gas this summer,” Schmucker said. “That’s something else we’ll have to deal with before we get our crops in and to market.”

-- Martin Thompson (, April 09, 2001

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