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The Supply Chain of Fertilizer from Mine to Farm

Where do fertilizer products come from?

From a mine somewhere in the world, to the farm next door, minerals used for fertilizers travel a great distance before ending up at your local dealer. Unfortunately, sometimes things like inclement weather or high downstream grower demand can slow down the process. Even in challenging times, however, Southern States strives to stay on top of the fertilizer supply chain to get products to customers as quickly as possible.

Canadian Winter Woes

Two of the three major fertilizer nutrients - potassium and phosphorus - are mined and processed in different places around the world. For instance, the majority of the potash sold in the U.S. comes from Western Canada. The potash originates from deep underground mines and is then transported on railways south. From the railway, trucks then transport the fertilizer to regional warehouses or sales locations.

While that seems rather straight forward on paper, a number of complications can arise throughout this process. From Canada, getting everything into position in the winter is tough, and delays due to winter weather can affect supplies during the high demand in spring.

During the winter of 2014-2015, for example, the Canadian rail could not run for days at a time. On some days when they could run, the trains could only travel safely at about half their normal travel speed. "When you can only travel 30 mph instead of 60 mph, that's just time lost," says Joe Wlodkoski, Southern States Director of Agronomy for Procurement of Fertilizer. "You can't go 90 mph the next day to make up for it."

Up the Mississippi

For phosphorus, different challenges can affect delivery logistics.

Even though there are phosphate surface mines in the southeast (Central Florida and north eastern NC), a large portion of phosphate used in the USA is mined in Morocco and imported. The process involves loading product onto a shipping vessel, sailing across the ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, discharging product onto a barge, barging product up the Mississippi River, unloading at a terminal in Kentucky, and then trucking product to the warehouses.

In the spring, high water frequently affects shipping on the Mississippi River so that the tug operators have a hard time maneuvering barges up river. Delays occur as barges wait for waters to lower to safe levels.

Delays can also occur due to the high demand for train cars and truck drivers. "There are only so many rail cars available in the U.S.," Wlodkoski says. "For dry and liquid transportation, there is increased high demand for rail cars and trucks from all sorts of industries that we end up competing with; bulk chemical intermediate producers, coal and grain traders and distributors of manufactured goods, just to name a few."

Time Crunch

The toughest problem suppliers' face is the short time frame of demand. The narrow 6 to 8 week window in the spring when it's critical for growers to get product does not allow for many travel time delays.

"Our retail locations are 100 percent stocked in early spring, and we work to continuously replenish the supply, but the challenge comes in keeping the warehouses full as quickly as our inventory is turned," says Wlodkoski.  "Some growers self-apply and have dry/liquid on farm storage. We encourage those growers to work with local Southern States representatives and plan ahead for the best timing for bulk fertilizer farm delivery. "

Despite the logistical challenges, Southern States and our suppliers are committed to providing growers with high quality and competitively priced fertilizers. This year, for instance, we went the extra mile with advanced preparation for another rough winter. Working with our key potash supplier, additional rail cars were leased and we utilized their large rail staging yard outside of Chicago thus maintaining additional rolling inventory to meet downstream in-season demand promptly."

"We are cognizant of a grower's expectations from us and consistently challenge ourselves and our suppliers to exceed those expectations," Wlodkoski says.

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