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Huh? Corn farmers welcome minus-30 temperatures

Most people, apart from small children and the most dedicated skiers and snowboarders, have had about all they can take of the frigid weather and freakish storms that have blanketed large swaths of Canada and the United States in ice and heavy snow. But the particularly harsh winter could spell better news ahead for potash producers, a group that could certainly use some cheer after a tough 2013.

One of the coldest winters ever in the U.S. grain belt appears to have penetrated deep enough underground to kill off a hefty percentage of harmful insects. Among the hardier pests, corn borers can typically weather temperatures as low as minus 20 celsius for lengthy periods. But they can't handle those minus 25s or 30s. And other types of bugs perish much sooner if the frost penetrates the soil to a depth of at least five centimetres.

The high insect mortality rate means reduced spending on expensive pesticides, which is problematic for such big bug killers as Bayer, BASF and Dow Chemical. But the killing frost can result in farm savings of as much as 10 per cent, enabling cost-conscious growers to spend more on fertilizers to enhance yields in what could be a banner crop year. Which is where North American potash players Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan, Agrium Inc. and Mosaic Co. come in.

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The industry is still reeling from the collapse of the Russia-Belarus cartel last August, which dragged down prices and drove away nervous investors at a time when the grain markets were weakening. That left potash with an uncertain outlook for this year. But prices appear to have bottomed and the cold winter could further brighten producers' prospects by boosting demand.

"It's setting up, for the farmers, to be a relatively less expensive early start to the coming season," says food commodities expert Ron Lawson, co-founder of Logic Advisors.

Corn producers, who are among the heavier pesticide and fertilizer users, stand to be major beneficiaries. True, crop prices remain well below levels of the past couple of years, when soaring demand, much of it from the use of corn for ethanol fuel, drove the average price to $6.89 (U.S.) a bushel in 2013. But Washington's estimate of $4.40 a bushel for this year would still leave corn above the longer-term average over the past five decades, at a time when chemical costs – a major expense – are coming down.

Meanwhile, the U.S. farm legislation signed into law by President Barack Obama Friday makes it profitable for everyone to keep planting. The revised law reduces the direct subsidies available to American farmers, but increases the subsidized crop insurance program. If they miscalculate, or their crop is damaged, they won't be out of pocket.

Mr. Lawson likens it to playing casino roulette: Bet on black and you win; bet on red and you don't lose. So why not plant big? "There are a lot of moving parts [to the corn story]," Mr. Lawson says. That includes troublesome possibilities like too much rain or even flooding early in the planting season. "But right now, you're looking at a bigger crop."

Potash producers may not be able to recapture their previous pricing power. But lower costs should leave them well-positioned to take advantage of a healthy jump in demand.

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About the Author
Senior Economics Writer and Global Markets Columnist

Brian Milner is a senior economics writer and global markets columnist. In a long career at The Globe and Mail, he has covered diverse business beats, including international trade, the automotive industry, media, debt markets, banking and the business side of sports. More

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