Synthetic fertilizer manufacturers are ready to roll with the punches that the future will bring

Just like pesticides and water, synthetic fertilizer manufacturers face an array of challenges in the short- and long-term future of the golf course maintenance industry.

Legislative regulations related to the environment and economics are two issues that synthetic fertilizer manufacturers must deal with now, and will continue to deal with in coming years. Challenge and change could be two words that define the business climate for fertilizer manufacturers.

The age of biology

Dave Heegard, general manager of the professional products division for LebanonTurf, remembers the age of chemistry in the 1950s and 1960s and the slogan, “A better living through chemistry.” He believes the industry, and the world as a whole, are on the verge of an “age of biology” with a similar slogan.

LebanonTurf, well known for its conventional nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (N-P-K) fertilizer products, began offering biological products when it acquired the Emerald Isle Solutions line of foliar and granular fertilizer products from Milliken Chemical in 2008. LebanonTurf didn’t stop there. In July 2009, LebanonTurf acquired the turf and landscape business from Novozymes, including the ROOTS Turf brand of organic-based granular fertilizers. And in early 2011, the company purchased the U.S. horticultural and turf division of Plant Health Care, another manufacturer of biologically based products.

Heegard believes that, over time, more and more superintendents will begin using biological-based products.

“It’s a slow process of integrating the biological components into traditional turf nutrition programs,” Heegard says, noting that plant nutrition programs that include bionutritional products will soon become the norm rather than the exception.

Synthetic fertilizers blended with biostimulants will become more commonplace, says Heegard, whose company recently released Country Club MD (Maximum Dispersion) fertilizer, which features Meth-Ex, a slow-release nitrogen combined with the biostimulants sea plant kelp and humic acid to fight turf stress.

“There has been a lot of work done in the last 30 years with trying to make fertilizers better in terms of performance,” Heegard says. “This is one way that you can make them better.”

The Andersons is also delving into bionutritional products, such as Humic DG, which is designed to improve fertilizer efficiency and soil moisture retention, as well as increase the uptake of nitrogen.

The company actually introduced a humic product to the golf course maintenance industry in the mid-1990s. “But it was before its time,” says Chuck Anderson, director of professional products for The Andersons in Maumee, Ohio.

Anderson says more superintendents are open to bionutritional products because they are what he likes to call “renewable.” But it’s not just superintendents who are interested in renewable products, it’s people in general.

“There’s a fundamental change that’s happening globally,” Anderson says. “People are becoming more caring of the planet. People will pay more to be ‘green.’ “

Mike Johnson, director of sales and operations for Vereens Turf Products in Longs, S.C., says many superintendents formerly fertilized strictly with synthetics, while others used organics. But now a lot of superintendents are using both and requesting custom-blend fertilizers from Vereens.

“We still sell a tremendous amount of synthetic fertilizer, but a lot of superintendents are using more blends,” Johnson says of Vereens, which sells synthetic, organic and custom-blend fertilizer throughout the Southeast.

Superintendents are also distinguishing between pasteurized organics versus unpasteurized organics. A pasteurized organic is baked. But when it is baked the carbon source is depleted, Johnson notes.

“More superintendents are beginning to realize the importance of carbon in the soil,” he adds.

While not a bionutritional, Vancouver, B.C.-based Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies has introduced a sustainable fertilizer, Crystal Green. It’s made from recovered phosphorus and nitrogen from municipal and industrial wastewater streams and transformed into a slow-release fertilizer. Ostara says it’s the first nutrient technology to offer plant-activated, slow-release fertilizer sustainably made from renewable sources. A blend of phosphorus, nitrogen and magnesium, Crystal Green is an enhanced efficiency fertilizer that offers lower application rates and reduced nutrient loss through leaching and runoff, according to the company.

“This is an additional tool that superintendents can put in their toolboxes,” says John Guglielmi, Ostara’s senior vice president of fertilizer sales.

Phosphorus leaching and runoff has been an issue with fertilizers on turfgrass. However, according to the company, Crystal Green reduces the risk of leaching and runoff because of its slow-release and citrate-soluble formulation.

Guglielmi says superintendents like the peace of mind they’re getting from using a fertilizer with phosphorus that they know won’t end up in a pond or stream.

“They don’t need to worry about that now,” Guglielmi adds.

Dan Froehlich, vice president of agronomy for Ostara, expects that use of enhanced-efficiency fertilizers and bionutritional products will continue to increase in the next decade. Ostara is conducting research with some golf courses to study the synergies between Crystal Green and bionutritional products.

The regulators

Bob Raley, an agronomist for turfgrass and ornamentals at Agrium Advanced Technologies (AAT), says states will continue to look into regulating turfgrass fertility. He says AAT representatives have worked with state regulators to educate them about the benefits of turfgrass fertility.

“We’ve been successful at getting the support of legislators that still allow for effective turfgrass nutrient management,” he adds.

Heegard believes environmental criticism surrounding the fertilizer industry has somewhat diminished. More people are seeing healthy turfgrass as a filter to keep pollutants out of the water supply.

That said, “We just really need to make sure fertilizer is being used responsibly, whether it’s for the home lawn or the golf course,” he adds.

LebanonTurf has worked closely with state regulators over the past few years. As a result, Heegard is pleased that many state regulations are going in the same direction.

“We’ve done that in connection with a number of people from our industry,” Heegard says. “It has been a collaborative effort.”

His biggest concern is if every state does something different with fertilizer regulations, which would mean that bags of fertilizer would need to be labeled differently for every state.

States that set their own regulations can add a lot of complexity and cost, Anderson says. For instance, a fertilizer product could be one SKU. But because five states have different regulations, that one SKU becomes five SKUs because there has to be five different labels and bags.

Regulatory complexities the past five years have made for a challenging marketplace, and Anderson expects that to continue in the next five years, with more regulations on phosphorus and slow-release nitrogen expected.

Superintendents in some states are already seeing limited fertilizer choices because of increased regulations, Anderson says. While fertilizer manufacturers continue to look for solutions, the likelihood of superintendents running out of fertilizer options is minimal, he notes.

“We’re committed to it, and a lot of our competition is committed to solving and getting products to superintendents to manage turf,” he adds.

It’s important that fertilizer manufacturer representatives continue to educate state legislators about their products, Guglielmi says. But that will be an ongoing challenge, because most legislators have term limits, he adds.

“Once you educate them with what you’re doing, their terms run out, and you have to educate someone else again,” Guglielmi explains. “So what we try to do is not only work with elected officials, but we also work with their staffs. If you can help their staff members understand about your product and how it works, then they can act as a bridge between you and the new representative coming in.”

Guglielmi says superintendents are keeping an eye on regulations they know could impact their fertilization programs.

“We’re starting to see superintendents spend more time doing soil samples, which establishes documentation,” he notes.

Fertilizer and finances

Heegard says he has been a part of some “terrific technology” in his career. But a major challenge for fertilizer manufacturers today is “cost innovation,” he says.

“It’s easy to innovate on the top end, but I see an opportunity to be more innovative on the cost side,” he adds.

Superintendents have been financially squeezed the last few years because of the sputtering economy. They need quality but affordable fertilizer more than ever.

Heegard says the cost of some fertilizer has dropped because the analysis has dropped. He has seen cases where a 28 percent analysis of nitrogen at $25 a bag went to 18 percent analysis for $16 a bag. That’s not a cost savings, just a dilution of the product, Heegard explains. But if superintendents don’t look at fertilizer labels, they won’t notice if a fertilizer contains more limestone and less nitrogen.

“The real challenge going forward is who can take some cost out of the value of fertilizer without sacrificing its performance,” he says.

Johnson says more superintendents want to get the most out of fertilizer, so they are ordering custom blends to save money.

“A significant percentage of our customers is asking us to incorporate organic carbon fertilizers into a synthetic blend along with other inputs that can maximize the residual and efficiency of the fertilizer,” he explains. “And by blending various sources of fertilizer in one product, you can get a great synergistic response.

Raley realizes that superintendents are doing more with less, particularly with labor. So AAT’s strategy is to offer products to help superintendents reduce the number of fertilizer applications but with the same results as far as turf quality, he adds, noting that AAT can create blends of polymer-coated fertilizers than can last from two to four months.

With their budgets crunched, superintendents want to get every dollar out of a fertilizer application and are using the primary nutrients to better utilize their dollars, Raley says.

Anderson says that The Andersons is looking at efficiency to control costs. That means they may use more ingredients such as humic, which doesn’t have much price volatility, in fertilizer production. Humic also bodes well from an environmental standpoint.

The up-and-down price of fertilizer has been a challenge for industry companies in the past decade, Anderson says.

“I see volatility in pricing continuing,” he adds.

Superintendents need to know that fertilizer pricing is based on things that are out of a fertilizer manufacturer’s control, such as energy prices and the amount of fertilizer used for food production.

“Our margins don’t change much,” Anderson states.

The cost of state registration fees continues to escalate, which has also impacted The Andersons’ business, Anderson says.

“It’s part of the reason why we trimmed 28 percent of our SKUs last year,” he notes.

What’s coming?

Heegard doesn’t believe a lot will change in the fertilizer industry 10 years from now, with the exception of superintendents using more bionutritional products in their programs.

With water quality in many areas of the country getting worse, and more golf courses using effluent to irrigate, Johnson says more superintendents will use soluble organic fertilizers to combat the pH and salt issues caused by poor water quality.

Raley says the fertilizer industry will improve on all aspects.

“I’m convinced that over the next decade we will continue to evaluate fertilizers for their efficiencies, and we will continue to get better and better at application strategies and rates,” he adds.

From a business perspective, Anderson says his company sees plenty of opportunity in golf, even though more golf courses have closed than have opened in the past several years. He also says innovation must improve to accelerate the pace of getting new products to market.

That will happen, says Anderson, who expects there will be a convergence of energy, nutrition and food that will transform the industry.

“There are plenty of solutions yet to come,” he says.