Dear Father Christmas,

'While I’m aware it might be a bit of a squeeze to fit it all in your sleigh, do you think your reindeer could manage to deliver a couple of lorry loads of fertiliser this year?'

Well, there’s a fair old chance that there might be quite a few messages of this type being posted up the lum on farms around the country at the moment – as anyone adopting the normal tactic of playing an extended game of 'who blinks first' with the fertiliser manufacturers doesn’t look likely to cash in on any discounts as the new season approaches.

Instead, with fertiliser prices continuing to spiral ever upwards, it’s a safe bet that just about everyone is working out how costs can be controlled by getting the most out of what we’ve already got – or ekeing out what we’ll simply have to buy by making it go as far as possible.

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This fact has been obviously been well recognised by the likes of the SAC and the AHDB, who have all been setting up webinars and on-line meetings to help us address the sudden rise in prices.

But while the majority of growers look an aghast as ammonium nitrate prices rise beyond £700 a tonne, a warning has also been issued to those lucky enough to have bought stock in earlier in the year before sky-rocketing gas prices saw production of fertilisers slow and its price head ever skywards.

So, while we might joke about any deliveries being made by Securicor and being accompanied by armed guards, there are some serious issues to be considered around the security of such an expensive – and not forgetting dangerous – material.

Just the other week the merchants’ trade organisation, the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC), reminded farmers about their responsibilities to store fertiliser safely and securely.

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This was not only to avoid theft in the face of the rising price of the product, but also to highlight farmers’ duty to stop potentially explosive ammonium nitrate falling into the hands of criminals and terrorists who could put it to a devastatingly explosive alternative use.

Roberta Reeve, technical manager of Fertiliser Industry Assurance Scheme, said that while growers who didn’t have sufficient stock or orders in the pipeline to cover their needs could be affected by disruptions to the fertiliser supply chain – which, she said, was likely to continue into spring 2022 – another area of concern was the fact that on-farm stocks could act as a target for thieves: “While light-hearted comments on social media about selling excess stock of fertiliser may appear harmless, this may draw attention of the situation to criminals,” warned Ms Reeve.

And she also reminded growers that there was a risk of nitrogen-based fertilisers being used for illegitimate purposes: “Anyone handling or storing these products has a responsibility to provide secure storage and to remain vigilant to potential theft."

While she said, in a bit of a 'Ba humbug' move, it was true that some growers had spoken about cashing in on the increase in prices and selling fertiliser bought earlier in the year, rather than using it to grow crops, while the mark-up might sound good, such a practice was not legal.

Reeve said that while re-selling the fertiliser was, indeed, an option, it had to be done through proper channels and be accompanied by the proper paperwork and due diligence checks. In most cases, this would mean via a return to the original supplier for refund or re-sale – a process which is likely to take more than a little shine of the expected profits.

“It is illegal to sell ammonium nitrate without the correct documentation and fertilisers should not be advertised on auction sites, local trade magazines or social media,” she warned.

As a corollary to this, she also reminded farmers not to purchase fertiliser unless the source was known and the correct documentation was available.

NFU Scotland's cropping policy manager, David Michie, confirmed that while it might be tempting, it was illegal to re-sell fertiliser without the correct documentation – though admitting that this might disappoint anyone who found themselves in this position, he stressed it was important to abide by the law:

“Everyone in the industry should be alert to the potential misuse and mis-sale of nitrogen-based fertiliser by reporting suspicious activity or sales to the police,” he warned.

He added that where farmers were carrying stocks, it was important to follow the National Counter Terrorism Security Office’s five point plan for storing fertiliser – which included keeping the product in a secure area such as a building or sheeted, away from public view and that regular stock checks should be carried out with any loss reported to the police immediately.

But I guess that on a global scale, security is a factor which has also contributed to the rising prices in the form of food security. Governments around the world have long enough memories to recall the fact that food shortages and inflation have long been one of the biggest drivers of major political upheavals, with one of the more recent examples being the uprising over the price food which brought about the so-called Arab Spring a year or two back.

So, as a result of these food security fears, strong protectionist policies have been put in place in some of the major fertiliser-producing countries like China and Russia, with strict controls and even bans on exports meaning that there is less to go round.

All this has been happening just at a time when Europe and many other western nations have been cutting back on their own production due to the big hikes in fuel prices caused by depleted European reserves and an over-reliance on gas piped in from Russia.

With reduced European fertiliser production being mirrored in the US and Australia at a time when there is an increased global demand, then the predictions of a fertiliser shortfall across many of the West’s major grain growing areas might not be as fanciful as we had once thought.

But might it just be that we’re looking at this price hike the wrong way? Given the fact that excessive use of nitrogen fertilisers have been a major contributor to pollution and global warming through leaching and nitrous oxide emissions, could the steep rise in prices just be nature’s way of telling us that we’ve been using too much for the stuff to be good for the planet?

According to a lot of research our nitrogen use efficiency is pretty poor, with almost half of what is applied regularly being lost to leaching and/or as emissions of that potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, so there is a fair bit of room to make better use of what we do apply by getting timings right for crop growth and when weather conditions are optimum as well as taking up the option of variable rate spreading.

Going a step further though – and while I certainly wouldn’t support such an argument in these pages – some environmental organisations have long claimed that farming’s reliance on the use of synthetic fertilisers is the equivalent of a junkie’s dependence on his drug of choice, with a similarly difficult time likely to lie ahead weaning the industry off this addiction.

So, with our own white powder, be it in prilled, or granular form, likely to be both costly and in short supply well into next spring, maybe Boxing Day won’t be the only time we’ll be indulging in cold turkey …