A farmer fertilizes a field on the outskirts of Frankfurt, Germany, Monday, April 4, 2022. Russia's war in Ukraine has pushed up fertilizer prices that were already high, made scarce supplies rarer still and squeezed farmers. Credit: Michael Probst / AP

Farmer Daniel Corey watched diesel fuel for his equipment top $5.50 per gallon this spring and replacement parts took weeks to arrive, but something else at the heart of farming especially worries him.

That is fertilizer, which is in short supply.

Prices have doubled over the past year and promise to double again by next year’s growing season, the result of multiple factors from geopolitics to supply chain issues driving up costs and uncertainty for farmers in Maine and around the world.

Most fertilizers in Maine come from Canada, although raw materials are sourced from around the world. Farmers should be able to get enough this year, but higher costs for diesel fuel, electricity and machine parts are stressing farmers. Corey, CEO of Daniel J. Corey Farms in Monticello, does not plan to plant anything extra this year so he does not lose money.

“For anybody in agriculture in this state, this year will be the most expensive crop they’ve ever grown,” Donald Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, said. “More money spent on the crop has to get passed on somewhere, and some will be to the consumer.”

Maine imported $28.5 million of all types of fertilizer products from all sources worldwide in 2021, up from $19.5 million in 2020, according to WISERTrade, which collects trade data. Imports declined in January and February of this year to almost $1.5 million for both months, down from $2.4 million the same two months of 2021.

Fertilizer imports from Canada were in the first two months of this year, down by more than half compared with the same period last year. Maine’s imports from Russia, a major fertilizer exporter, more than tripled in the first two months of this year, but that was before sanctions due to President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

While fertilizer dealers said sanctions on Russia are already starting to pinch the fertilizer supply, prices had already started to climb since fall 2020, when Hurricane Ida idled a multinational agricultural fertilizer company in Louisiana. It was slow to restart, triggering shortages and price rises.

“The Russia sanctions are adding to the higher cost and causing uncertainty in the market,” said Danny Blanchette, general manager of Grand Falls Agromart in Grand Falls, New Brunswick, a large supplier of fertilizer to Maine farmers. “People will pay more for fertilizer this year, but they will get it.”

For Corey, who farms more than 1,100 acres with 50 varieties of seed potatoes, the price of fertilizer has risen from 25 cents per pound to 40 cents per pound over the past year, or about $540 per acre.  

Another farmer said the market for fertilizers is global and the sanctions on Russia are putting a higher bill onto Maine farmers.

“I’m covered for this year, but with the sanctions on Russia, next year might be a big problem,” said Ryan Guerrette, president of Guerrette Farms in Caribou, who farms 1,200 acres of potatoes.

He said fertilizer was $120 per ton a couple decades ago, but he recently paid $700 per ton, which is on the low side.

Escalating costs, including more expensive fuel to run the processes that make fertilizers and higher prices for transoceanic shipping of fertilizer components, are creating more price uncertainty for fertilizers.

“We can’t guarantee any future pricing,” said Tami Van Gaal, controlled environment business leader at Griffin Greenhouse & Nursery, a horticulture distribution company with a location in Gray.

That creates more uncertainty for farmers. Corey said he doesn’t know which supplies he’ll be getting when with ongoing supply chain delays and shortages. All of it is amplified by Maine’s relatively short growing season.

He and others worry about the U.S. reliance on foreign goods like fertilizer that are so key to its economy and about the potential for food shortages.

“Imagine having a whole agricultural society in the U.S. that we can’t farm without other countries supplying this fertilizer,” he said. “That’s scary. We should have more U.S. fertilizer companies.”