Fertilizers, Mixing Only

SIC 2875

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This category covers establishments primarily engaged in mixing fertilizers from already-processed fertilizer materials. In the industry, "fertilizer materials" refers specifically to fertilizers that have no more than one of the three primary plant nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium). This category also includes manufacturers of compost and potting soil, which condition the soil to promote plant growth but contain relatively small amounts of plant nutrients.

The production of mixed fertilizers is an industry that has seen periodic declines followed by rebounds during the past 30 years. The value of mixed fertilizer shipments in 2008 was $2.7 billion, the same as in 2002. Previously, sales were inconsistent, climbing from $2.2 billion in 1995 to $3.1 billion in 1998 to an industry high of $3.5 billion in 2005. Though single nutrient fertilizers have dominated the fertilizer market since the 1970s, mixed fertilizers remain a necessity for American farmers.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), mixed fertilizers, which also are termed multiple-nutrient fertilizers, typically are of four varieties: nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium mixtures(N-P-K); nitrogen and phosphorous mixtures (N-P); nitrogen and potassium mixtures (N-K); and phosphorous and potassium mixtures (P-K). In the early 2000s N-P-K multiple-nutrient fertilizers were used most frequently in the United States, with more than 10 million short tons consumed annually. Roughly 7 million short tons of N-P mixtures were consumed annually, followed by N-K and P-K.

Mixed fertilizers also can be classified according to the method manufacturers use to combine the component fertilizers--homogeneous mixtures, bulk blends, and fluids. A key process performed by producers of homogeneous mixtures (and one that is performed by producers of fertilizer materials as well) is granulation. Nongranulated dry fertilizer powders have a tendency to form hardened cakes, which make the product difficult to handle. The hardened cakes are not always broken up easily, and explosives are sometimes used to break these cakes up into heaps of stored fertilizer. Another problem with nongranulated fertilizer mixes is the propensity for the component fertilizer materials to segregate by particle sizes during transport and handling. Granulation addresses the problem of caking and segregation by shaping the constituent parts of the fertilizer mix into larger granules that are relatively equal in size and which each have the same nutrient composition. The manufacture of this type of mixed fertilizer is a complex process requiring sophisticated equipment.

By contrast, bulk blending plants do not perform granulation or any chemical processes and their basic equipment needs are rudimentary (such as bins, front-end loaders, mixers, and scales). They keep an assortment of fertilizer materials on site, from which they select desired proportions for mixing together, often to suit the specific nutrient needs of the customer. The mix may be bagged or it may be taken directly to the customer's field and applied.

Fluid mixed fertilizers have the smallest share of the mixed fertilizer market. Fluid mixed fertilizers are generally made by either the hot-mix or cold-mix process. Hot-mix plants combine ammonia with phosphoric acid, a reaction that releases considerable heat. The cold-mix process usually does not involve heat-producing chemical reactions, and the equipment needs of cold-mix plants are simpler than those of hot-mix plants.

The commercial use of multiple-nutrient fertilizers is somewhat controversial. Some governments have argued against the practice on the grounds that optimal results are obtained when farmers tailor their fertilizer usage to their specific crop/soil combination, and that this is best done with the use of single-nutrient fertilizers applied in the proper proportions. Research results have supported that argument, and advances in soil nutrient analysis technique have made it easier to determine which specific nutrient a particular plot of land may need. The result of this debate has been a trend away from the use of mixed fertilizers. Data for fertilizer consumption in the United States covering the period between 1955 and 1980 indicate that beginning in 1955, the use of mixtures was roughly twice that of direct application fertilizer materials. Over the subsequent years, the use of single-nutrient fertilizers grew, both in absolute terms and relative to mixtures, and in the early 1970s, they surpassed the use of mixtures.

According to the USDA, the 19.3 million short tons of multiple-nutrient fertilizer consumed in 1998 were down from the 19.6 million short tons used in 1997. Moreover, single-nutrient fertilizers were used almost twice as often as multiple-nutrient fertilizers. In 1998, more than 31 million short tons of single-nutrient fertilizers were consumed in America. However, the convenience of applying commercially-mixed fertilizer as opposed to determining the precise chemical balance appropriate for each plot of land ensures that the manufacture of mixed fertilizers will remain a major agricultural industry.

Current Conditions

According to industry statistics, an estimated 569 plants engaged in mixing fertilizers from already-processed fertilizer materials in 2008. The industry was valued at $2.7 billion, down from a high of $3.5 billion in 2005, with industry-wide employment of 6,767 workers. The majority of plants were centered in Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. Collectively, these states constituted over 25 percent of the market share. However, Iowa, with a mere 2.3 percent in market share, accounted for nearly half, $1.8 billion, of total industry shipments.

In 2005, the fertilizers, mixing only sector was valued at more than $2.5 billion. Manufacturers who specifically manufactured compost shipped $130.8 million in products. An estimated 41 manufacturers of mixed potting soil generated $31.9 million.

Industry Leaders

The leader of the mixed fertilizer industry in the 2000s was the agronomy company Cenex/Land O'Lakes Ag Services. Other key companies in this sector include the Tennessee Farmers Cooperative, with 2005 sales of $479 million, and Royster-Clark Inc. of North Carolina. Tennessee Farmers Cooperative sales reached $712.8 million in 2008. Royster-Clark Inc. was acquired by Agrium Inc. in 2006.

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