Thirty tanker trucks a day have been picking up fertilizer at the new Inland Terminal at Woodland, Calif. and delivering it to Northern California farms.
“It has been a good, steady start because we've had a normal start to the growing season for a change,” says Johnny Council, president of the Lyman and Tremont groups, major retail and wholesale fertilizer suppliers to Northern California farmers and owners of the new Inland Terminal. “The past four or five years have been anything but normal starts.
“There have been no weather crises this year, therefore, no long lines to pick up product needed in a big hurry. It has been steady — everything we expected — with good participation from the industry.”
The six-tank, 3.6 million-gallon storage facility on a rail siding was established to position fertilizer products closer to the growing and changing Northern California ag market. Bulk products are brought into Woodland either by rail or truck from ports or manufacturers for storage and later distribution to fertilizer dealers and farmer customers.
Until the Inland Terminal opened in February, the closest bulk storage facility to pick up product was Stockton, Calif., 60 miles south of Woodland.
“It's a stretch to make two legal runs from Northern California to Stockton twice a day,” says Council. “A driver can make four to five runs per day from this terminal to Northern California customers.” The closest bulk storage other than Inland for one of the products now available at the new Woodland facility is Fresno, and that's a 350-mile round trip.
The new terminal serves about 30 retailers and their farmer customers.
It is one of a few 24/7 terminals. Once Terminal Manager Tim Goodman trains and certifies a driver on use of the computerized loading system, the driver can pick up product anytime.
None of the products at Inland Terminal are classified as hazardous materials, so homeland security measures aren't necessary.
The new terminal is reducing the use of expensive diesel fuel, a savings for both drivers and customers, with reduced pollution and road traffic due to the shorter hauls.
“When we were developing this facility, diesel was a lot cheaper than it is now,” Council says. “Which makes us look pretty smart now. But if we were really smart, we'd have built the three additional tanks the containment is designed for, since the price of steel has doubled since we built the first six tanks.”
The new bulk fertilizer terminal is another sign of the continuing transformation of California agriculture north of Sacramento, going from traditional row crops to higher value, mostly permanent crops.
“Ten years ago, everyone was worried about what was going to happen after sugarbeets went away in Northern California,” says Council. “Obviously, we've done just fine without the beets, and I think it's safe to say Northern California agriculture is healthy right now, with strong crop prices across the board and a bright future.
“The soils are good and rich. Historically, it has been a row crop area, but we're seeing a lot more permanent crops going in.”
Some of the economic upturn is related to corn prices and the seemingly insatiable demand for corn to be used in ethanol production. California's corn acreage is up significantly, and prices are higher. In the recent past, about 75 percent of California corn has been chopped for feed, but that percentage will likely fall this year as a result of higher grain prices.
The high corn price is one reason processing tomato acreage is basically unchanged from a year ago, even though tomato prices are $13 per ton higher than a year ago. Growers can make just as much money from corn as tomatoes, with fewer inputs and less water.
Prices for alfalfa and other forages are the highest they have been in several years, again related to the ethanol-driven high prices for grain corn and the dairy industry. Prices also are strong for rice, with increased acreage in the Sacramento Valley.
But the biggest change in Northern California is much like the rest of the state, with increasingly more permanent crops being planted, notably almonds and walnuts, the latter moving onto the heavier rice ground.
Almonds are the crown jewel of Northern California agriculture, as they are elsewhere.
“We have three products at the terminal that are big in almonds: Can 17, potassium sulfate, and calcium thiosulfate,” says Council. “We see a lot of trees going in, but the almond board has done a great job of marketing, and the new supplies from young orchards are needed to build markets.”
Water for crops is an issue everywhere in California, but Northern California seems to be spared the major crises farmers to the south experience regularly.
“Most of our reservoirs are in good shape right now,” Council says. “Also, I think farmers are being more efficient with their water, with drip systems and micro-sprinklers now used on permanent crops.”
Overall, he says, Northern California agriculture is healthy, but like almost every year, fertilizer products are tight.
“As is the case for many of the crops we grow, fertilizer is now a world market,” says Council.
“We're halfway through the season, with sidedress ahead. With the big almond crop, fertilizer use will continue to be heavy. But, I think we'll make it through the season with adequate supplies.”