Disruptions in the Ag Global Supply Chain
An Arizona agriculture soil scientist at heart, Karl Wyant is an enthusiastic transplant to this desert state. This transplanted Ph.D. inadvertently discovered he loved agriculture by traveling all over Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota collecting and analyzing soil samples. He worked in the Sky Islands of Southeast Arizona, the high Rocky Mountain elk habitat, crawled through cave systems in South Dakota, and did some cool experiments on the rangelands of northern Colorado. It was here that he discovered that medical school wasn’t for him and that he was meant to be a soil scientist.
And Wyant is keen on supporting an ever-advancing agriculture industry. “Agriculture is becoming increasingly data rich. Future agriculture scientists will have to do a better job of collecting, synthesizing, and presenting information from multiple data streams to different end users. For example, these data sets will need to be used by growers to optimize inputs, use water efficiently, organize harvest data (e.g., yield maps), and comply with increased regulation,” he explains.
So today, Arizona Farm Bureau member Wyant serves as the Director of Agronomy at Nutrien, a multinational Canadian agriculture fertilizer and retail company. In this position, Dr. Wyant contributes to agronomic leadership in growing the Nutrien commodity and premium fertilizer product lines and promotes advanced sustainability initiatives.
Before working at Nutrien, Dr. Wyant served as the Vice President of Ag Science for Heliae Agriculture (2019-2022) and as an agronomist for Helena Agri-Enterprises in California and Arizona (2014-2019).
Dr. Wyant earned his advanced degrees at Arizona State University (Ph.D. - 2014) and Colorado State University (MS - 2008). Dr. Wyant is a Certified Crop Advisor and Certified Professional Agronomist (CPAg) and has his California and Arizona Pest Control Advisor licenses.
As we’d connected several years ago and kept in touch since then, knowing the challenges in the agriculture supply chain, I wanted his take on the global disruptions.
Arizona Agriculture: At 30,000 feet, discuss the current global potash, nitrogen and phosphate markets and the supply chain challenges we’ve been dealing with, at least from your perspective.
Wyant: While buying your fertilizer nutrient inputs might feel local, there are complex global supply chains in place that help deliver dry and liquid fertilizers to the local ag retailer, and ultimately to the farm gate.
Beginning in 2021, we have seen several disruptions that range from the war in Ukraine, economic sanctions, sharp energy and transport cost increases, and fertilizer production curtailments. Each input class (nitrogen, phosphate, and potash) has not come out of the 18 months unscathed. We are hopeful that the markets can find some resolution soon, but most experts agree that we need some patience.
Arizona Agriculture: What are some long-term impacts of some of the challenges we’ve seen in the markets, both positive and negative?
Wyant: I will start with the positive impacts we have seen in the last 18 months. Growers and their crop advisors are now having great conversations about how to make sure that they are maximizing the amount of fertilizer nutrients going into the crop and reducing the loss pathways (e.g., leaching, tie-up, etc.). We call that “fertilizer use efficiency” or crop made (e.g., lb crop/ac) per unit of applied fertilizer (e.g., lb N/ac). Folks, now more than ever, are concerned with utilizing different technologies, amendments, and the 4R practices (right rate, right time, right place, and right fertilizer source) to optimize the use of their input dollar.
Negative impacts seen over the past 18 months include significant inflation of the cost of our food in part due to higher fertilizer input costs seen at the farm gate. An extreme negative impact I have seen is some growers trying to eliminate nutrient inputs altogether, which often leads to yield declines.
Arizona Agriculture: What encourages you about the current and future markets? Do these supply chain challenges bode well for innovative improvements in the markets?
Wyant: Challenges always open the supply chain up for innovation, which should ultimately benefit the market. For example, I work for Nutrien on the fertilizer mining and manufacturing side, and we have innovation challenges in place across our NPK operations to help better serve the markets in the future. We are currently working on innovating our potash mining capacity to help bring more product to the market safely and in a swift manner. This commitment will help ensure growers have tools at hand to produce stable yields, which ultimately benefits food security concerns.
Arizona Agriculture: Discuss the historic average for fertilizer costs and the market for corn prices and corresponding ag commodities. While we’ve seen a rise in ag commodity prices, it has been offset by rising fertilizer prices.
Wyant: I remember when corn prices were the only soap opera in town! Unfortunately, the past 18 months have also been marked by volatility in the NPK fertilizer markets after several decades (except 2008) of relative quiet. Growers that have invested in their soil fertility in the past, have optimized their fertilizer use efficiency, and have deployed recent developments in precision agriculture (e.g., soil sampling and variable rate spreading) have been able to enjoy the high crop prices without sacrificing their yield due to wide swings in fertilizer use. Using these tools, growers have been able to dial in the optimum rates of fertilizers for their ground. On another extreme, some growers have made severe cuts in fertilizer inputs and have lost yield, and the potential for historic financial gain, as a result.
Arizona Agriculture: Are market alternatives to these traditional inputs viable and what do you see shaping the markets?
Wyant: One market that has become more popular recently is the local compost and manure markets as a source of plant nutrients. Some growers have called their local dairies or egg production facility and sourced their NPK inputs this way. These markets are viable but there are always concerns about trucking logistics since manures and composts are often applied at the tons-per-acre rate as opposed to the pounds-per-acre rate that we see in the modern NPK fertilizers. The rate difference is attributed to fewer nutrients per pound of applied material in composts and manures as opposed to something like urea or monoammonium phosphate (MAP).
If you can make the trucking and spreading costs work for your operation, a quality compost and manure source can help provide critical nutrients for your crop and supplement what you are doing in your fertilizer program.
Arizona Agriculture: How can farmers and ranchers mitigate their costs in these unusual times?
Wyant: Data is a great tool to help with planning and management. A solid set of soil samples and updated forecasts for nutrient needs based on recent yield goals can help fine-tune fertilizer applications to help eliminate excess spending where you don’t need it. Moreover, a crop advisor can be an invaluable team member to help with the planning and execution of an updated crop nutrient plan and help with interpreting the numbers. On the ranching side, a good nutritionist can help with ration alternatives as feed supply and source ebbs and flows through the year.
Arizona Agriculture: As a scientist, what gets you excited about what’s going on in agriculture?
Wyant: I am encouraged by the recent infusion of precision agriculture technologies that have begun to become more accessible at the farm gate level. For example, many growers are now mapping the nutrient variability in their soils and then writing prescriptive plans that apply just the right amount of fertilizer where it is needed. The ‘low’ areas get more fertilizer, and the ‘high’ areas get less. As a result, I have seen yield averages tighten up and growers get a more uniform output as a result.
Other recent technology infusions include the ability to monitor and schedule irrigation with your smartphone and look at real-time crop stress during the season from satellite systems. This can help a grower quickly figure out where irrigation nozzles or emitters might be plugged so they can fix the problem and not lose yield. Technology keeps improving and, at the same time, barriers to the access and utilization of said technology continue to fall away. As a result, growers get better tools in the field.
Arizona Agriculture: Where do you see the biggest gains in the ag industry’s development?
Wyant: I want to stress that the existence of modern NPK fertilizers should be discussed more often and be recognized as a massive technological gain for humanity. Sometimes fertilizers are seen as a commodity and perhaps even taken for granted. It has been said that more than half of the globe’s population owes their calories to the relatively recent development of the fertilizers we use every day (e.g., urea, UN32, MAP, SOP, MOP). Thus, our food security is tied directly to the use of fertilizer-based crop nutrients, and I think the broader public is just starting to understand the connection.
Arizona Agriculture: What sets Arizona’s agriculture apart from other regions of the world, separate from our 300+ days of sunshine?
Wyant: I have been working in Arizona agriculture since I was at Arizona State University as a Ph.D. student, and I love telling our ag story when I travel. Arizona has a unique climate that can support high yields of both commodities (corn, cotton, and wheat) and specialty crops (leafy greens, wine grapes, citrus, and melons). I have observed that this combination is quite rare from a global ag perspective.
Due to our climate and infrastructure, we can grow an incredibly diverse array of healthy crops that can be directly consumed by people or indirectly (alfalfa that is fed to dairy cows; feed for cattle). We also have an incredible ranching community that helps put protein and calorie-dense meat on the table across the globe. Arizona’s agricultural diversity gives our local production systems a good deal of resiliency when times get tough as opposed to other areas that have just one or two major crops. Our ag portfolio is unique and should be celebrated more!
Arizona Agriculture: What have I not asked you that is important to share with our Arizona farmers and ranchers?
Wyant: I would ask the Arizona farmer and ranchers to hang in there as several supply chain issues eventually work themselves out. Many folks, across the globe, are actively looking for solutions to the challenges we have seen over the past few months across the ag input spectrum, including fertilizers. For example, Nutrien has recently committed to safely producing 40% more potash (relative to 2020 levels) by 2025 to help keep farmers and food security in good shape. I expect we will see similar initiatives across the ag input spectrum (fertilizers, chemicals, adjuvants) over time and we (the ag industry) will come out in better shape on the other side of all this as new innovations take hold.