By: Jonathan Mohan
25th August 2014.
Disclosure: I have no stock positions in any of the companies below, and own no potash futures contracts. I have no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.
We are in a geopolitical volatile situation were the potash war has become miniscule in comparison to the political one. We have political instability in the Middle East, North Africa and Ukraine affecting both global markets and people there. Uralkali’s CEO Dmitry Osipov has been somewhat silent about their strategy to boost prices, since his appointment in December last year. Meanwhile in the west, PotashCorp’s former CEO Bill Doyle had been giving reassuring speeches such as “we see steady improvements taking hold in the potash industry,” and “these are encouraging trends and supportive of our long-term view for the business,” to investors. I could only conclude he breached the space-time continuum thinking we are in early 2008 when the potash cartel had control, taking advantage of farmers. He was replaced by Jochen Tilk, former CEO of Inmet Mining Corp in July.
Western potash companies’ heads like Bill Doyle psychologically led investors to believe that this is the time to buy potash stocks because matters such as the sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine conflict will decrease the market share controlled by Uralkali. This should in turn; result in giving western companies a chance to grab contracts in China with higher prices. In reality though this is not happening so far and is also unlikely to occur. In a desperate situation, Uralkali will be able to negotiate even lower prices with China than the present $305 per tonne on a cost-and-freight basis, while still making a profit simply because the cost of production is lower than its North American counterparts. The gains made by western potash companies’ stock price where short lived on the announcement and implementation of sanctions on Russia due to stockpiling of potash in anticipation of escalation in the conflict.
Ukraine is the world’s sixth-largest exporter of wheat and fourth-biggest exporter of corn. The conflict has affected farmers and disrupted the normal operations of farming there, the effects of which can be felt on the commodities market later on. When that time comes farmers around the world will be buying potash for increasing yields to keep up with demand. Later this year, the possibility of seeing higher potash prices during contract negotiations is very possible as a result.
Russia was not invited to the G8 meeting at Belgium in June over its actions in Crimea, a G7 message to isolate Russia. The meeting resulted in nothing new for the markets or the problems in Ukraine. While in August the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) announced the creation of a multilateral development bank operated by those nations. This is just another step of the growing relationship between Russia, China and India which of course will create an environment for more favourable potash contract negotiations with each other and adverse results to Canpotex.
In conclusion there are many political factors in this potash business and investors should not allow single individuals representing potash companies to wave one issue in favour of buying stocks, dismissing the other factors. There is a paradigm shift of power to the east in the form of a sleeping giant, and I can only shudder to think what will happen to the potash market when he awakens.
By Jonathan Mohan
Shale gas is a game changer in the US ammonia markets as the country plans to reduce its dependence on imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from countries like Trinidad, Qatar and Canada. According to the US Department of Energy, in 2012 LNG imports were down 23% to 1.5tcf which is the lowest since 1990. Shale gas is natural gas that is trapped within shale (fine-grained sedimentary rocks) formations. The gas is recovered using horizontal drilling and the environmentally debated hydraulic fracturing (fracking) technology as far as 8,000 feet into the earth.
New ammonia, urea and UAN (urea and ammonium nitrate) plants are popping up in the US as a result of the shale gas boom. CF Industries has new projects in Louisiana and Iowa. PCS Nitrogen restarted its Geismar plant in Louisiana after years of being idled. Egypt’s Orascom Construction Industries is investing into a nitrogen fertilizer facility in Iowa. Shale gas production in the US has contributed to lower natural gas prices locally and has made it more economical to produce ammonia because natural gas is a key ingredient in the ammonia production process.
Cheaper natural gas in the US will increase local nitrogen fertilizer stock and therefore decrease imports from the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Trinidad. Naturally, this should drive nitrogen fertilizer prices lower for farmers but there are some potential offsetting factors. Growing global demand, overestimated shale reserves and necessary regulations in the US for green-field projects may counteract the tendency for a decrease in fertilizer prices. Shale gas production in other part of the world is still at initial stages with environmentalists’ opposition to it and is a much debated topic. This is a wait and see situation where it will largely affect the fertilizer supply demand fundamentals globally. Farmers have been showing much more interest in the energy sector due to the shale gas revolution to predict fertilizer prices and this trend will continue.
By Jonathan Mohan
The cacao plant (Theobroma Cacao) & its seeds are the source from which the cacao (also spelt as cocoa in English) bean industry and chocolate products exist. During the 16th century the Criollo type cocoa was first planted in Trinidad which is native to Mexico. In 1727 a majority of plantations were destroyed by a hurricane or blight and a few decades later the Forastero type was brought from Venezuela and planted. Over time the Forastero interbred with the remaining Criollo and formed a hybrid that is known as Trinitario. Trinitario is a flavourful and spicy cocoa bean produced in rural areas of Trinidad that is coveted by chocolate manufacturers around the world. During the 19th and early 20th century the cocoa trade was booming in Trinidad and Tobago but a series of factors lead to its decline.
Data collected from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations is plotted below and shows the decline in production from 7030 tonnes in 1961 to 400 tonnes in 2011. Prior to1961 local production was much higher but in the 1920’s world over-production resulted in lower prices, then followed an economic depression and thereafter the ‘witches broom’ disease affected production locally. The oil industry and increasing profitable sugar manufacturing began to grab labour force from the cocoa industry contributing to a domino effect of detrimental unintended consequences till this day.
Some of the challenges being faced by the local cocoa farmers are the high cost involved in acquiring new land and rehabilitating existing estate lands. This is due to increasing inflation in the country and an expanding land buying bubble. Acquiring arable land has become difficult as some arable land is needlessly utilised by the government’s housing construction program. Cocoa producers are aging as the average age of a farmer locally is 60 years and climbing. Not only the farmers but the trees are aging also and replanting is required. Estate owners are facing a labour shortage as there is a lack of youths enthusiastic about the cocoa industry & willing to work in agriculture.
At present the government needs to put more focus on modifying and modernising the Cocoa Act of 1962. Farmers’ voices are not heard by the public due to lack of media coverage on issues that they face. Media attention is one avenue known to bend the political will of the government and should be used to get farmers predicaments across to all. Locally the Cocoa & Coffee Industry Board (CCIB) operates only as a marketing arm for cocoa, a crop they’re not directly involved in. Legal framework must be enhanced to get the CCIB to dive deeply into increasing production efficiency and using their public relations department to get entire communities on-board.
Existing tax-payer funded unemployment programs should be implemented in a manner to add labour force to the cocoa industry. Training and workshops can be done to educate farmers on surpassing international standards for export of cocoa and means of maintaining a stable supply because only a reliable supply can preserve a market. Adhering to regulations and certification requirements is the only way to ensure high quality cocoa is being exported. In the long term, a domestic standard can be introduced which would boost consumer confidence and enhance export readiness of producers. Action into Trinidad and Tobago’s cocoa market is needed immediately before it’s lost in the pages of history.
By Jonathan Mohan
Launched in 2003, the Youth Apprenticeship Programme in Agriculture (YAPA) is a Trinidad and Tobago government sponsored programme, overseen by the Ministry of Food Production for youth ages 17-25 years. Its objective to expose and educate youths in the agricultural industry is done by teaching and placing interns in agricultural enterprises both private and public. The programme consists of two phases and is aimed to develop and increase farming skills of youths and foster appreciation for the agricultural industry.
Youths who complete training are prepared to enter the agricultural sector in areas of vegetable production, root crop production, livestock rearing, herbs and spices, and food processing. The programme is tied to general policy for food security, youth employment and rural development. The total graduates since the launch of the programme are over 250 youths with over 7000 youths participating at some point in time. At the last graduation in October 2013, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Food Production noted that the average age of a farmer in Trinidad and Tobago is over 60 years and there is a shortage of persons to work in the food industry.
The lack of motivation between youth to pursue agriculture careers has much to do with the cultural stigma associated with farming. Farmers in Trinidad and Tobago are regarded from the misguided perspective that they are low financial earners and part of the lower manual labour class. When the mention of the word ‘farmer’ is said amongst the youths in Trinidad’s society, the picture that comes to mind is an old man with a straw hat covered in mud who is unaware of technology. The challenge here is to educate the general public on the importance and profitable career of a farmer. A farmer’s job is not a low class job and the stigma of not working in an air conditioned office wearing a three piece suit should never be a comparison for having such an ideology.
It is this ideology that has discouraged youth from participating in agriculture and from pursuing careers in the sector over the past few decades. Another contributing factor that may have been a hindrance to greater achievements of YAPA is the governments’ over extensive focus on the oil and gas sector which is publicised by the local media having the negative effect of changing public opinion away from farming. More focus and resources must be invested into programmes such as YAPA to save this country from its fading agricultural sector. There are youths who are passionate about agriculture and simply need the guidance and initial preparation to enter the industry. This is where programmes such as YAPA make the difference.
Innovation 4Agriculture, a youth group in the field plans the landscape for their upcoming farming project – Trinidad and Tobago
Photo Courtesy: technology4agri
By Jonathan Mohan
I visited a 28 year old farmer planting hot peppers in a rural area south of Trinidad. His fertilizer program included the use of poultry manure (sawdust, wood shavings, and poultry fecal matter) and NPK granules application. Manures contain the nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) that make up fertilizer.
Chemical water based fertilizers, releases ammonium (NH4+) ions and nitrates quickly into the soil and a problem being faced with this is that nutrients leach out of the soil. This does not maintain the long term health of the soil. Manure will slowly to release nitrogen, which contributes to healthy plant growth, phosphorus which helps to develop healthy roots and potassium contributing to the formation of chlorophyll.
The nitrogen content in the manure comes from uric acid, ammonium salts, and organic (fecal) matter. Uric acid, readily changes to ammonia (NH3), a gaseous form of nitrogen that can evaporate. To decrease this loss of nitrogen the farmer rotovated the manure after spreading into the soil during ground preparation. This will convert the ammonia to ammonium, which will attach itself to clay particles and organic matter. Poultry manure in particular is ‘hot’ which means putting it directly on the plant can burn the leaves and kill the plant. This is the reason why the farmer firstly spread the manure dispersing it across a large area of land so as to prevent any accumulation in one area. When the hot pepper plants were transplanted the plants did not ‘burn’ away.
An economic analysis done by the farmer showed that the use of manure will decrease the costs incurred from buying large amounts of overpriced fertilizer while yet maintaining the maximum yields. In this particular case a poultry farm existed in the area of the hot pepper farmer so transportation and application costs were low for the manure. This is just one of the examples showing how rural farmers are using natural means of reducing farming costs.
See pictures attached of hot peppers being planted at this rural farm.
By Jonathan Mohan
Reports have been surfacing that Russia’s Uralkali is going to restore its partnership with Belarus’s Belaruskali and market potash via the Belarusian Potash Company (BPC). The reason for this is, the Russian ambassador to Belarus Alexander Surikov, has told a news conference on Friday that Uralkali is ready to restore cooperation with Belaruskali.
After Uralkali’s bombshell that they are going ‘solo’ in July much has taken place in the potash market and a future partnership reforming may be bad news for farmers. In the past six months, North America’s potash marketing arm Canpotex has been very worried as some of its members saw a drop in share prices as much as 25%. Saskatchewan based PotashCorp has reduced its workforce by 18% and cut back mine production.
Let’s look into what took place on the other side of the world. Uralkali’s CEO Vladislav Baumgertner was arrested in Minsk and then extradited to Russia. Russian tycoon Suleiman Kerimov sold his 18% share in Uralkali to Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov’s investment arm ONEXIM. Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko has sent negative signals to the Russian government and diplomacy beyond measure has been displayed from the Kremlin. Uralchem, the world’s second largest ammonium nitrate producer has become a shareholder.
If Uralkali and Belaruskali reunite, the control of 40% of the world’s potash market will be in their hands and Canpotex in the west will have just below that resuming the global potash oligopoly. There will surely be a period of more volatility before prices rise but it depends on what prices contracts are agreed upon especially in China and India. Farmers would tend to buy fertilizer and stockpile before the rise begins. The manipulation of potash prices by such cartels is very probable in the future if the situation continues as present. The only light at the end of the tunnel for farmers are years’ ahead providing BHP Billiton quickly completes with the Jansen project and off-sets the price-over-volume paradigm.
For a detailed analysis on the initial split of the BPC, please see my related article, click here.
By Jonathan Mohan
Gone are the days when every fruit vendor in Trinidad and Tobago had a variety of bananas. Over the last few years ‘sikyè’, ‘silk’, ‘gros michel’, and ‘lacatan’ bananas are seldom seen in our market and local grocery. Why does T&T import thousands of tonnes of bananas annually when such a desired fruit can be grown locally?
In order to comprehend the fundamental modus operandi of the diminished local banana market we must journey a few decades back when the local banana market was sufficient and sustainable for the country. Data available from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations show that between 1961 and 1983, the highest year of banana imports was 1978 importing 69 tonnes. Through the late 1980’s into the 90’s banana imports dramatically spiked upwards to as high as 4,791 tonnes in 1988. This was due to a slump in oil prices, labour problems, failing agricultural policies coupled with fiscal austerity and economic policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund via the National Alliance for Reconstruction administration. A decrease in banana imports to 446 tonnes subsequently occurred in 1996.
By this time the international banana trade war was overheating between the United States and Europe because of the Lomè Convention. This trade agreement was between the EU at the time called the EEC (European Economic Community) and ACP (African, Caribbean, and Pacific) countries that were former colonies of Europe. ACP countries banana exports were given preferential privilege to enter the EEC. The US government, lobbied by US based multinational companies who dominate the Latin America banana market filed a complaint against the EEC with the World Trade Organisation, claiming the agreement broke free trade rules. In 1997 the US won their petition which began the decline of the banana market in the Caribbean hitting the economy of Jamaica, the Windward Islands and others.
In 1997 T&T imported 1,129 tonnes and exported 296 tonnes of banana. For the year 2010, T&T imported bananas amounted to a staggering 12,032 tonnes and 45 tonnes was exported. Local banana farmers have been undercut by cheap imported bananas into the country. This condition exists because the banana market is monopolised by a select few US based multinational companies who are accused of exploiting labour in Latin America and receiving preferential treatment from corrupt governments where they operate.
The banana market in this country will only produce adequate volumes to satisfy local demand when all parties involved make a conscientious decision for change. Additionally the consumer must regain their sense of economic patriotism to buy local and request local bananas when available. Also all political parties must stand up against unjustifiable trade policies forced on us from international institutions and organisations that do not have the best interest of the country at heart. Agricultural programs must be structured to support farming and ensure a strong banana market locally. Farmers and the agriculture community must not give up on the growing of bananas and should not be disheartened by minor reversal in prices. More emphasis must be spent in the education of youths in the field of agriculture to yield well-equipped farmers. Local bananas are part of the country’s food heritage and should not be made extinct by cheap mass produced bananas.