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Growers balked at purchasing crop nutrient when costs soared and now warehouses and ports are contending with bloated inventories. Picture: BLOOMBERG
Growers balked at purchasing crop nutrient when costs soared and now warehouses and ports are contending with bloated inventories. Picture: BLOOMBERG

The fertiliser shortage that threw the agricultural sector into disarray and pushed food costs higher globally may be fading.

Crops across the world are dependent on nutrients from Russia, one of the biggest exporters, and the invasion of Ukraine four months ago roiled markets for the crucial chemicals.

Ultimately, prices soared so high that farmers halted buying — and now the market has flipped. Fertiliser supplies are piling up from Florida to South America. Ships are waiting to unload and companies are struggling to reduce stocks in ports and warehouses, according to people familiar with the matter. 

In Brazil, warehouses are approaching maximum capacity because farmers are betting prices have farther to fall. As far back as March — just weeks after Russia invaded — North American potash reserves were at a six-year high, according to Bloomberg’s Green Markets and The Fertiliser Institute, as prices soared and farmers skipped applications. 

Meanwhile, concerns that fertiliser supplies from Russia would be shut off have not panned out. Russian fertiliser sales are exempt from the sanctions imposed by US and EU in response to the war on Ukraine, and shipments are entering the US, according to cargo data tracked by Bloomberg. A ship carrying 12,000 tonnes of granular urea, a common nitrogen fertiliser, arrived from Russia with a bill of lading dated June 8. While the amount is relatively small, it confirms that the product has found a pathway to American shores.

The US government is even encouraging agricultural and shipping companies to buy and carry more Russian fertiliser.

Wholesale fertiliser prices are declining after soaring to multiyear highs. North American prices are the lowest they have been since January and a closely watched index for the continent is down 35% since touching a record in late March, according to Green Markets. Farmers are still awaiting lower prices as grains trend higher, expanding the arbitrage of delayed nutrient purchases.

Green Market’s North American weekly fertiliser price index dropped 4% this week, compounding last week’s 3% decline. Wholesale New Orleans urea fell to the lowest since August, while New Orleans ammonia inched higher by 2% amid rising overseas demand.

The slide in fertiliser prices — if it continues — may ease of the concerns that farmers would skip applications of synthetic nutrients to save money, reducing crop yields and worsening food inflation and hunger in parts of the world. Still, it is too early to tell whether prices will rebound if the war in Ukraine persists into a period when demand is seasonally higher.

“Fertiliser prices softened through the spring season as delayed plantings, ample supply, and near record per-ton prices pushed farmers to pull back on fertiliser applications,” said Alexis Maxwell, an analyst at Green Markets. Fertiliser-to-crop price ratios, a key affordability metric, have sunk, “reflecting a potential buying opportunity for corn farmers who need product today”.

Bloomberg News. More articles like this are available on bloomberg.com

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