File photo, bins, corn

From 2013 through 2016, Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) field inspectors made unannounced stops at bulk agricultural chemical facilities.

If the fertilizer plant was mixing and blending fertilizers, the inspectors could take a fertilizer sample for testing. Along with that sample, the inspector took a copy of the bill of lading – the invoice for the grower who had ordered the blend.

That information and sample were sent to the MDA laboratory for analysis. The results were then sent to both the ag-chem facility and the grower, so they could see if the bill of lading was accurate or deficient.

By law, the overall index value of the fertilizer has to be at least 97 percent accurate.

If the sample was deficient, the grower and the dealer could try to work together to compensate the grower for the mistake.

“We let them figure that out, and that is how we run this program,” said Jane Boerboom, supervisor of the Pesticide and Fertilizer Management unit. She added that deficient samples were indeed found during the 2013-16 timeframe.

While the fertilizer sampling program is still available, it has been inactive since 2017 due to staffing and budgets.

The Pesticide and Fertilizer Management unit needed to divert funds and staff to anhydrous ammonia facility inspections, among other things.

“We are trying to inspect the (anhydrous) facilities at least every three years, just because in the past, we’ve had very significant releases that either resulted in evacuations or injuries,” Boerboom said. “We have stepped up our inspection programs since 2012 to get each of these facilities in an inspection rotation because of the safety hazards with anhydrous.”

Seven staff people in this unit handle the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s anhydrous ammonia permitting and inspection program, the bulk pesticide and fertilizer permitting and inspection program (focusing on containment), chemigation requirements, the waste pesticide collection program and the lime licensing program – in addition to the defunct fertilizer sampling program.

They also handle fertilizer and pesticide complaints from purchasers. The challenge with bulk fertilizer is the grower doesn’t usually realize something is wrong until they harvest a low yield. By that time, there isn’t really any way to determine if it was due to an incorrect fertilizer analysis or something else.

“Nobody’s very happy when we get a complaint, because we can’t do much about it because the samples are long gone,” she said.

Growers know that the vast amount of fertilizer analysis is correct, although there can be a couple bad apples, said Kyle Kraska, who serves on the Minnesota Crop Production Retailers Board of Directors.

“That’s always the thing with ag retail is you can’t buy a bag with a guaranteed analysis for bulk field use,” he said. “You have to trust someone that is competent in the warehouse to blend it, to put it in the truck right, to ship it out. You definitely have to trust someone to do these things correctly.”

If a bulk fertilizer product doesn’t look right, Kraska encourages the grower to get it tested and to call the MDA Pesticide and Fertilizer Management unit.

“Farmers are pretty smart, they know what N, P and K should look like,” he said.

There is an online complaint form ready for growers to fill out, Boerboom added. It’s located at https://www.mda.state.mn.us/pesticide-fertilizer-misuse-complaint-form. The MDA follows up and at the end of the investigation, sending a letter to the complainant telling them where they can obtain a copy of the investigation file.

Boerboom said the MDA Lab Services Division only conducts analysis of fertilizer samples obtained during inspections to verify the guaranteed analysis statement of the product. She encourages growers to check with private testing labs to see if they conduct fertilizer product analysis.

During 2013-16, the Pesticide and Fertilizer Management unit annually conducted seven to 25 unannounced fertilizer sample analysis stops annually.

The window for testing is very short – a few weeks in the spring and a few in the fall – but Boerboom wants to hear from growers and grower groups if they want to bring back inspections.

“The bottom line is we get our funding to run our fertilizer programs from a tonnage fee we have assessed on fertilizer sales,” she said. “We have to use that finite resource, so the priorities switch to slice the pie a little differently, or we can go to the Legislature with the backing of growers and organizations and ask for a fee increase.”

Visit https://www.mda.state.mn.us/pesticide-fertilizer/guidance-documents for more information.