The Fertilizer Institute Commemorates National Infrastructure Week


May 17, 2018

One fact that consistently surprises people is that fertilizer is on the move all year round. Year after year, more people learn that our industry supplies nutrients for crops that nourish a more prosperous world. No less than half of all food grown around the world today is made possible through the use of commercial fertilizer. To meet the growing demand for food, the fertilizer industry relies on many modes of transport, including rail, trucks, waterways, and pipelines, to get fertilizer to farmers when they need it. Of course, strong transportation infrastructure is about more than getting crop inputs, such as fertilizer, to farmers; it’s also about getting those crops out to rest of the country and to export markets. 


Time to Build

This week, The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) commemorates National Infrastructure Week. During Infrastructure Week, TFI proudly joins with hundreds of organizations and thousands of leaders all united around one message: It's #TimeToBuild: Our Future. Our Infrastructure. At a time when far fewer resources are devoted to infrastructure than was the case in the past, TFI supports advocacy and education that elevates infrastructure as a critical issue impacting America's economy, society, security, and future.

What exactly is infrastructure? British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously said, “You and I come by road or rail, but economists travel on infrastructure.” Her point? Actually, the term "infrastructure" doesn’t really speak to the general public. Although we rely on it every day, most of us rarely stop to think about it. In fact, the term means something slightly different to almost everyone. Neither Congress nor state legislatures have infrastructure committees, per se.  There is no federal infrastructure department or agency. Still, the fundamental importance is undeniable for these reasons:

1.    Investment in infrastructure significantly reduces the costs of trading goods.

2.    Improved infrastructure increases the volume of goods shipped.

3.    The economic benefits of increased transportation access greatly outweigh the construction costs.


Fertilizer Moves all Year Round

Within the United States, fertilizer moves 24–7, 365 days a year by rail, truck, barge, and pipeline. Due to fertilizer production facilities’ limited storage, the finished product must be transported to warehouses and terminals located strategically, like pieces on a chess board, throughout the nation. Each season, every day, the distribution system is key to getting fertilizer where it needs to be so that the right amount of the right fertilizer product is safely delivered when the farmer needs it.

Have you seen the latest State of the Fertilizer Industry (SOI) Report? (See what we found out.) Several trends emerged as TFI members’ voluntary reporting underscored the importance of the country’s strong transportation network. The SOI Report represents the entire fertilizer value chain and accounts for 94 percent of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium production capacity and 33 percent of the retail sector in the United States.  

More than half of all fertilizer moves by rail, one-third by barge, and two-thirds of ammonia moves by pipeline. In terms of total tonnage, trucks often have shorter hauls, but more fertilizer touches a truck (more than half of all fertilizer) than any other mode. Across the entire fertilizer sector, no one mode is more important than any other.

Have you ever wondered what keeps the TFI team up at night? Without a doubt, it’s transportation service disruptions. (Well, that and thinking of ways to drive greater adoption of 4R Nutrient Stewardship.) The truth is, it’s hard to overstate the importance of our nation’s transportation infrastructure to agriculture and rural America’s comparative advantage in world markets. The future of the fertilizer industry depends on our ability to provide goods and services that help growers feed the world, while keeping the industry’s colleagues, consumers, and communities safe.


Digging In

  • Transport by Road: More fertilizer – 51 percent  – touches a truck than any other mode. It is often the last leg, and often the shortest, but no less critical. Once produced, fertilizer might be transported via truck many times, including to the rail or barge loading facility, trucked between the barge and rail trips, trucked from the barge and rail facility to the retailer, and eventually trucked to the farmer. Truck shipments increase in the spring and fall when farmers are applying fertilizer on their fields. The fertilizer industry shares challenges related to truck drivers’ recruitment, high turnover, retirement and road maintenance.
  • Transport by Rail: Rail plays a crucial role and moves 32 percent of fertilizer across the United States. It is one of the safest and most efficient ways to transport fertilizer. The fertilizer industry continues to invest in new railcars that are more sustainable and move product safely across the country. Where feasible, moving fertilizer by rail instead of truck reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent. One rail car carries the same amount of fertilizer as four truck loads. Reporting TFI member companies shipped almost 20 million tons of fertilizer via rail. It would take nearly 800,000 trucks to move this same amount of fertilizer. TFI actively participates in stakeholder dialogue with the Surface Transportation Board, which oversees the nation's rail network and is charged by Congress with resolving railroad competition and service disputes. For example, significant cost cutting measure enacted by freight rail providers sometimes lead to logistical bottlenecks and limited competition can drive up freight rail rates at three times the rate of inflation over the past 15 years. When problems occur, TFI advocates for solutions that keep American farmers growing and ensure the rail industry can remain a world-class operation.
  • Transport by Port: Each year, approximately 14 percent of U.S. fertilizers move by barge. Sea transport is an especially important factor for agriculture, as the U.S. exports 25 percent of its total grain production, including nearly 50 percent of U.S. soybeans and more than 40 percent of U.S. wheat exported each year. Of this volume, nearly 60 percent moves via Gulf ports, while another 27 percent is transported via Pacific Northwest ports. TFI advocates for upgrades for America’s aging water infrastructure. Most locks and dams were built in the 1920s and 1930s and have far exceeded their 50-year design lifespan. In the past decade, there has been a 700 percent increase in unscheduled work stoppages for repairs.
  • Transport by Pipeline: Approximately 80 percent of all fertilizer used in the United States depends on ammonia and pipelines move 3 percent of U.S. fertilizer.