Potential fertilizer shortage concerns local farmers

By Ruby Irene Pratka – Local Journalism Initiative

Supply chain concerns and import tariffs instituted as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine are likely to have lasting consequences for Quebec’s farmers, according to the Union des producteurs agricoles (UPA). The geopolitical situation has made it difficult for local farmers to access supplies of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, of which Russia is a major global supplier. Additionally, on March 3, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland announced that all Russian imports into Canada would be subjected to a 35 per cent tariff.

“Russia is a major exporter [of fertilizer] and although we can get supplies from the United States, a lot of our supplies come from Russia,” said Marc Brien of UPA-Estrie. “This spring we will be fine, because we had a ship arrive before we stopped buying things from Russia, but in the medium term, it’s worrisome. The prices have gone up so high that it’s hard to make our operations profitable.”

Brien says that this time last year, a ton of nitrogen fertilizer could be had for $600; now, prices have doubled, to $1,200 – without taking the tariff into account.

Perhaps ironically, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Canada is a net exporter of nitrogen fertilizers. Domestic production is concentrated in western Canada; until recently, it was cheaper for farms in central and eastern Canada to source nitrogen fertilizers from Russia.

According to Brien, there are ways farmers can adapt to the fertilizer shortage, although adaptation also takes planning and investment. “Soybeans need less [nitrogen] than corn, but this year, it’s too late in the season for a farmer to turn around and say, ‘I’ll grow soybeans instead of corn.’ Grain producers can use manure if there’s a pork operation nearby, but for the rest of their needs they have to use chemical fertilizer.”

Brien and his colleagues are hoping federal agriculture and agri-food minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, who is also the MP for Compton-Stanstead, will be able to negotiate an exception to the tariff for fertilizer. “This is something that’s being considered, but it’s too soon to confirm,” Bibeau said, adding that negotiating a tariff exemption is a complex process involving “at least four ministries.”

“I realize our farmers are worried,” Bibeau says. “I’m working with my colleagues in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Transport to find the best ways to [supply] these fertilizers in Canada, because at the end of the day, it’s a matter of food security.”

Along with the fertilizer supply crunch, farmers are also facing higher prices for pesticides, feed grain, and predictably, transport. “When oil prices go up, everything goes up,” Brien says. “I know of one transporter that raised their prices by 30 per cent. Oil prices had gone down a bit, but then came the war [in Ukraine] and they went back up again.”

“Unless food prices go up further, there are farms that will have to close because they can only make a loss for so long,” he says.

Brien and the UPA are calling on all levels of government to provide timely and extensive support for farmers.

Quebec farmers have access to the farm income stabilization insurance program and a range of federal business risk management programs to face climate and other risks inherent to farming; both are administered by the Quebec Ministère de l’Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l’Alimentation (MAPAQ). No MAPAQ representative was available to comment at press time.

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