Workers pick strawberries last week at an Oxnard, Calif., farm. Costly fertilizer is making many crops more expensive to grow.
LOS ANGELES -- Link Leaven's fertilizer bill has been growing faster than the lemons and avocados on his Ventura County farm.
Every week or so, when he orders another truckload of the nutrients, he's been getting hit with a price hike of up to 20 percent.
"It's like there's no end in sight. It's very scary," said Leaven, who pays $600 for a ton of some fertilizer mixes that he paid half as much for just six months ago.
Farmers across the country are seeing similar price increases caused by several factors, including the booming demand for fertilizer to produce animal feed for rapidly developing nations like India and China, where people are adopting diets richer in meat.
In the United States, high gasoline prices are prompting growers to plant fertilizer-dependent corn for the manufacture of ethanol fuel. High energy prices also have affected the availability of natural gas, a key ingredient of nitrogen-based fertilizers that can now be sold more profitably as fuel.
Midwestern growers of commodities such as corn and grain have been able to absorb the cost hikes as their crops fetched higher prices. But growers in California, the nation's leading agriculture state, have yet to see retail prices increase for the fruits and vegetables that dominate their farms.
In fact, farmers saw the average price of broccoli fall to about 23 cents a pound in February, down from 26 cents a year earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Lettuce prices also dropped about 3 cents to 13 cents a pound during the same period.
Along with soaring labor, water and fuel costs, increasing fertilizer costs have been draining farmers' savings and will likely lead to higher prices for fruits and vegetables to go with separate increases in meat, poultry and dairy products.
Jim Prevor, editor of Produce Business magazine, said some produce prices are already beginning to creep up due to fertilizer and other costs, but major increases won't be seen until farmers curtail crops that become too expensive to grow.
"Eventually it's going to have to change," Jack Vessey, a lettuce and spinach grower in San Diego County, said of prices.
Vessey said he's currently pushing for a price bump from distributors that buy from his farm.
In the Central Valley, almond, tomato and lettuce grower Mark Borba said the twofold price increase for some nutrients could lead him to cut production.
"At some point, when any manufacturing business finds their raw material costs exceeding the price of what they've produced, they will stop," he said.