Potash in the United States
Potash is a potassium-rich, pink-hued salt found in minerals and chemicals.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) says about 93 percent of the world’s potash production was used by the fertilizer industry in 2008. The most common type of potash fertilizer is the compound potassium chloride (KCl), also known as Muriate of Potash. Other common forms are Sulfate of Potash, Potassium Nitrate and Sulfate of Potash Magnesium.
Potash also is found in animal feed supplements, and it can be used in industrial applications as part of manufacturing processes. More recently, potash is used to improve the yield and quality of crops that comprise ethanol and other crop-based biofuels.
Potash and plants
Because of its potassium content, potash is frequently combined with nitrogen and phosphate in the compound known as N-P-K fertilizer for its elemental symbols. All three nutrients are critical to plant growth, yield and quality.
Potassium is often called “the regulator” for its role in crop production. Nearly every aspect of plant growth development, yield and quality is dependent upon an adequate supply of potassium. Its importance cannot be overstated. As an essential plant nutrient, potassium cannot be replaced with other nutrients. As a fertilizer, potash has no commercially viable substitute.
Adding potash to the soil strengthens plant roots and stems, and helps fight diseases, pests and stress. It helps plants retain water and weather extreme temperatures. Potash increases the absorption of nitrogen and phosphate, and activates critical enzyme systems which improve crop quality.
American potash industry
Underground potassium salt deposits were formed when ancient oceans and seas evaporated. Potash is mined around the world from those deposits.
USGS says the United States ranked seventh in the world for potash production in 2008. Estimated American potash resources total about seven billion tons.
U.S. production has been relatively stable for several years. In 2008, domestic sources produced 1.2 million metric tons of potash, reports USGS. It was mined in Michigan and New Mexico, and produced through brine evaporation in Utah. Most of the production occurred in southeastern New Mexico, where two companies operate three potash mines.
The majority of U.S. potash resources are found between one to two miles beneath the surface in a 1,200-square mile area of Montana and North Dakota. That ore deposit is an extension of a potash basin in Saskatchewan, Canada.
The United States imports more potash than it produces. The nation imported 91 percent of the potash that it used in 2008. Imports, primarily from Canada, totaled 5.3 million metric tons. American exports totaled 275,000 metric tons in 2008.
The fertilizer industry uses about 85 percent of domestically produced potash, with the chemical industry utilizing the remaining 15 percent.
U.S. supply and demand
Use of potash had been on the rise for the past decade, and demand was generally strong in the United States and around the world. Potash prices began trending upward as early as 2002, hitting record highs in mid-2008. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS) primarily attributed the 2008 price surge to strong worldwide fertilizer demand and declining fertilizer inventories.
However, agricultural fertilizers, including potash, did not escape the impact of the worldwide recession that hit fiercely in the fall of 2008. Prices fell, and ERS says that during the month of December 2008, U.S. potash imports fell 20 percent and exports fell 15 percent.