Is Reality Becoming Stranger than Fiction?

Editorial by Agronomist Jamie Bultemeier

For the past few years, just prior to the yearend, I have been looking back and reflecting on the happenings and lessons learned as the year comes to a close. So, what did the 2021 growing season show us?

The spring planting season had some minor rain delays, but overall went smoothly. Field operations, while slightly delayed for some, still progressed better the previous few years. Strong commodity prices led to an increase in plant tissue sampling through the season. Overall, the first half of the crop season was good. As the season progressed some challenge began to appear with extended wet or dry weather and the appearance of disease. Harvest started earlier and the soil sample volume to ramped up earlier than normal. Shortly after the strong start of fall harvest, the fall rains began and made harvest a challenge. Unfortunately, there are producers in the region still trying to finish harvest. The fall rains resulted in fields scarred with ruts from harvest that will impact crops for the next few years. Through all of these challenges there were numerous reports of exceptional yields.

During the fall of 2020, the stage was being set for increased fertilizer demand leading to increased fertilizer prices. The fall of 2020 was dry, and yields were good. There was a notable amount on pent up fertilizer demand due to previously low commodity prices, and pent-up soil sampling demand due to several sequential wet fall and spring sampling seasons preventing sample collection. Fall of 2020 set soil sample number and fertilizer application volume records. The record pace of fertilizer consumption and soil sampling continued into the spring of 2021. Early in 2021, the shipment delays of fertilizer began as well. Very good crop condition, with favorable commodity prices, led to strong in season fertilizer use. This kept the demand and supply pressure on the fertilizer market and the market was unable to recover before the fall of 2021.  This time last year it would have been reasonable to anticipate increases in fertilizer prices. But how many people forecasted and planned for a 2 to 4 times increase in fertilizer prices occurring in 2021? Now we are preparing for the 2022 season making plans to address the reality that the supply of fertilizer, especially nitrogen, may be limited. We have seen high fertilizer prices before, but widespread supply shortages, that is a new challenge for most of us in agriculture.

We need to be making alternate plans in the event any given input is unavailable or increases in price 10-fold. Producers and suppliers need to be asking themselves, “How do I produce a profitable crop if “x” is not available/accessible?”  These kinds of shortages are not impossible in agriculture, they have occurred. During the 1973-74 energy crisis, and WWII, fuel was in short supply. Agricultural supply shortages are something we have not experienced in recent years. Some herbicide chemistries are also looking to be in short supply for the coming growing season. Tires and machinery parts may continue to be a concern as well.

Each year as I write this article I sit for a moment and think, what challenges might next year bring. What challenges and opportunities lie in store for producers in the coming year based on the outcomes of the current year?  As a producer, and a professional agronomist, I try plan for the extremes and the worst-case scenario when developing and executing a nutrient management plan. Drought and excessive rain are always in the plan. Then there is planning for the unexpected, that seems to be growing more difficult each year. Maybe even to a point beyond what is conceivable in the planning process. Two years ago, I did not contemplate the impact of a global pandemic, and last year I did not consider the impacts of a widespread global supply chain disruption. Maybe my planning for 2022 should include the evaluation of what impact an alien encounter would have on crop production.  Anything is possible.  It almost seems that reality becoming stranger than fiction.

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