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What’s going on right now with the price of fertilizer is pretty frightening. What we’re likely to see this year is a big increase in soy production & acceleration of the longterm trend of farm consolidation. In this🧵thread🧵I will share my takes and prognosis on the matter.
First, some basic info. Nitrogen fertilizer is, after water, the biggest limiting factor in modern crop production. It takes the form of ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3), first synthesized in the 17th century, and first mass produced for explosives manufacturing during WWII.
After WWII, the explosives market was not as robust, but manufacturers soon realized that it made for an extremely powerful fertilizer: the nitrogen was both immediately available upon application and it wasn’t susceptible to volatilization (run off, leeching or vaporization).
The problem with ammonium nitrate is that it’s a form of salt: a rocky precipitate—nonexistent in nature—that coalesces after the reaction of ammonium and nitric acid. Salt, as we all know from our readings on the Punic Wars, makes soils infertile by killing microbiological life.
And so since the 1950s, American farmers have been literally salting their own fields. This happens to work in the short term because this particular salt happens to be very nitrogen rich. But in longer term, dead, eroding soil is untenable, producing diminishing returns.
This situation has led us to the fact that American crop agriculture is utterly dependent on nitrogen fertilizer for its basic fertility. If N becomes too expensive, it simply does not pencil out to grow a crop in a given year. This is a rock and a hard place for many farmers…
Because most operate on such thin margins, and under such a degree of financial leverage, that a year with no crop is not feasible. So many will turn to soy as a way to survive the price hike, since soy requires less nitrogen fertilizer.
(To clear up a misconception, this is NOT bc soybeans are leguminous, nitrogen-fixing plants [they are]. American soils are too dead for nitrogen fixation to have much effect, & many farmers do not inoculate their soy seed. Soy needs less N simply because it is a smaller plant.
Furthermore, nitrogen fixed by legumes is not available until the following year, after crop harvest and root dieback.)
Some farmers, though, will not even be able to raise soy, and so they may lose their farms, and the American agricultural landscape will become even more consolidated. (One step closer to the Crop Belt becoming one giant Gates/govt co-owned soy/rapeseed farm.)
This will cause the price of grain to go up even further, which is likely to cause a lot of animal herd liquidation, so we may actually see a temporary drop in meat and other retail food prices.
Beyond all of this, I do not wish to prognosticate or soothsay, but I would like to offer a few comments on some basic fertility concepts for how, if we were to become sane at some point, we might avoid such stressful times in the future.
The problem in America is not that we do not produce enough of our own fertility. It’s that the vehicles of that fertility are herded into feedlots, and their manure is flushed into the local river system with every storm, creating a dead zone the size of CT in the Gulf of Mexico
While Boomers were still being born (ie not that long ago) every single crop farm in America would have been an integrated system of plants and animals. This had been true everywhere, for as long as agriculture has been practiced.
In other words, the agricultural segregation of plants and animals—of soil and animals—is an EXTREMELY novel experiment. On a typical American farm in what is now the Corn Belt, what you probably had was a farm system that looked something like this:
Divide the farm into three sections: pasture, hay and crop. In a given year, animals would graze the pasture. Hay, from naturally-growing grass would be harvested off the hay area. And the crop area would be tilled and sown with some sort of crop: corn, wheat or something else.
After the harvest of the crop, animals would be allowed to graze the stubble, and fed out hay on that land during the winter, which would help to replenish the fertility. It maybe planted again, or the sectors may be rotated. Simple concept, in practice for millennia.
These types of systems are still utilized in the drier areas of the Midwest, where rain is not reliable enough to guarantee a harvestable crop, and so cows provide financial insurance to the operation.
But back then, the cows were not thought of as financial insurance, their manure and urine were simply the sole source of fertility. There was no fertilizer that was sold by the ton. Crop systems were not separable from animal systems. Until ammonium nitrate came on the market.
Now the entire farm could be devoted to crops! It did take a while for growers to come around to the idea. But in the end it was irresistible: more land in crop production, more profit, more capacity to leave a robust farm operation to your descendants.
What farmers at the time, if I may say so, may not have realized, was the degree to which they were actually relying on a 13,000 year soil-building legacy from intact grassland ecosystems in existence prior to European arrival.
And so now the chickens may finally be coming home to roost. One of my mottos is: we can’t afford the cheap stuff. And that goes for nitrogen fertilizer just as aptly as Chinese-made shovels and hammers that break after six months (and you can’t fix a carbon fiber handle).
I’ll finish with this (hopefully some of you are still with me). It would be some cruel poetic justice if nitrogen fertilizer shortages caused a food supply crisis. That’s because 77% of the atmosphere is comprised of nitrogen gas (N2).
Now N2 is one of the most stable compounds in nature: its two nitrogen atoms are joined by a triple bond. To my knowledge, only two things can split this bond: lightning, and soil microorganisms that live on the roots of leguminous plants such as clovers, vetches and others.
In healthy pastures, these legumes are always present, their roots are being sloughed off all the time, & there is never a nitrogen shortage. When we harvest hay, we put up a form of plant nitrogen, which the horse/cow will process into available plant food (manure) that winter.
And so when I hear about nitrogen shortages, I want to laugh and weep at the same time. Because there will never, EVER, be a real nitrogen shortage on Earth this side of Judgment Day. The real shortage is in the disposition of stewardship, and the magnanimity of suits.
Everything we need is provided for. The water, the nitrogen, even the trace minerals. But through our avarice, we squander these gifts where they are provided by doing things like taking animals off the land and putting them in feedlots.
Cruelty to animals, and a joy to our enemies. Doing better would not be difficult or less productivity. It would just require a big old slice of humble pie. I suggest we eat it now before it is force-fed to us.

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Great thread with a hidden implication: The financialization of farming is the source of many pathologies. One way to build resilience form our population is for those who DONT depend economically on agriculture to partake in growing The balance sheet rules, unless it doesn't

I’m glad I followed you :) Great thread!