SUSFERT Communication spoke to Jakob Moser, Timac Agro Business Unit Manager Fertiliser Production, Austria, about the growing trend in the demand for organic fertilisers; issues affecting fertiliser development and prices, including the risks associated with imported fertiliser feedstocks; and the farming community they deliver to.
Organic farming trend – the Eurostat statistics
Statistics provided by Eurostat for 2020, officially communicated in February 2022, show that the total land area under organic farming in Europe continues to increase, covering 14.7 million hectares. Although these figures do not make a distinction between whether the organic farming constitutes crop growing or the raising of animals, an assumption can be made that the demand for organic fertilisers for food, and other uses, to support the growing bioeconomy will be exponential.
In the European Union, the organic farming area makes up 9.1 per cent of the total agricultural land area. Austria leads with just over 25 per cent of the available agricultural land being used for organic farming, according to the 2020 Eurostat figures.
Between the period 2012 to 2020, countries like Croatia, Bulgaria, France and Hungary recorded an impressive growth of over 100 per cent each in the increase of organic farms within their borders. Meanwhile, Austria recorded a change of 26 per cent over the same period, the report says.
In terms of hectares, “Spain, France and Italy had the three highest total organic areas”. Only Poland had a negative reduction of -22.3 per cent. More can be read on what constitutes organic farming by reading the EU glossary.
Why is SUSFERT interested in bio-based, organic fertilisers?
The Horizon 2020/BBI JU SUSFERT Consortium plans to develop four bio-based fertilisers, especially designed to reduce imported phosphate that is deemed unsustainable for Europe.
Reducing EU reliance on essential, imported components for fertilisers becomes more significant with the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. This has caused geopolitical and economic instability, including a shortage of gas derived products such as nitrogen and ammonia that are used to produce fertilisers.
SUSFERT partners and fertiliser multinationals, Timac Agro and Groupe Roullier, are integral to the development of the fertilisers on the Consortium, along with SUSFERT’s other European partners involved in industrial biotech, research and innovation. The aim is to bring the fertilisers to the market post-project.
Both Timac Agro and Groupe Roullier have conventional and organic fertilisers within their product range. The SUSFERT fertilisers currently under development are not classified as organic, but rather as bio-based. This means that they are derived from biological or natural materials. It should be stated, however, that some bio-based fertilisers are suitable for organic farming.
AllThings.Bio has an informative blog explaining the difference between organic and bio-based products, de-bunking conventional myths that are circulated concerning the environmental footprint of bio-based vs. fossil products, although bio-based products usually do perform better. “Conversely, they mostly do worse in the acidification and the eutrophication categories,” the blog says.
Increase in demand for organic fertilisers
Jakob Moser from Timac Agro Austria said that two of Timac’s best-selling fertilisers are suitable for organic farming, and that “Austria has a long tradition of organic farms for such a small country, with the average farm in the country being around 50 acres in size”.
Moser said that the trend towards the use of bio-based fertilisers was on the rise within the markets that Timac Agro supplies. The Timac Agro Austria factory employs 80 people and produces around 220,000 tonnes of granulated fertilisers every year.
The factory supplies Austria, Germany, some Swiss and Balkan regions, Hungary, Poland, the Baltics, Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Slovakia and, importantly, the bread basket of Europe, Ukraine, up until the Russian invasion.
Timac Agro Austria supplies these markets with fertilisers that are delivered to its customers by land and via barges on the Danube River. The core raw materials that are needed for fertiliser development are also transported on the Danube.
In 2021, Timac Agro Austria sold 2,600 tonnes of organic soil conditioners and 2,000 tonnes of organic phosphorus that were specialised for the Austrian market.
“Timac Agro fertilisers have low application rates, so the risk of the nutrients being washed away are significantly reduced with our products. This is also the big advantage of being part of the SUSFERT project in that we are finding new ways to use soil micro-organisms and other waste streams to develop efficient and effective fertilisers that don’t leach,” he said.
Price of organic fertilisers
When asked whether organic fertilisers were more expensive than conventional ones, Moser said that the price of organic fertilisers depended on the feedstocks and raw materials that were used in the various fertilisers.
“At the moment our organic fertilisers are not more costly because they are not made from nitrogen which is currently expensive. Also, you cannot use nitrogen products in organic farming, except perhaps in small amounts in manure, or bio-based fertilisers, according to the EU fertiliser regulation,” he said.
“In our nitrogen fertilisers, we avoid using nitrate, because of it leaching into the soil and waterways which has caused extensive eutrophication, or algae blooms, in some parts of Europe,” he added.
Gas prices hike fertiliser prices
Moser said that the prices of fertilisers in general have come under pressure due to the high gas prices that have been experienced in Europe over the past year, worsened by the war in Ukraine.
“The price of commodities such as ammonium sulphate, or potassium that is sourced from Russia has risen substantially with the associated gas prices,” he said.
S&P Global, formerly Standard & Poors, explains HERE how fertiliser prices are linked to gas prices. Gas is a feedstock of commodities used in fertilisers, like nitrogen, phosphorus, ammonium sulphate and urea.
“Unsurprisingly, when natural gas prices rose, prices of nitrogen fertilizers also shot up. In fact, prices of nitrogen — as anhydrous ammonia, urea, or liquid nitrogen, phosphorus as diammonium phosphate, or DAP, and potassium as potash — all gained significantly over the past year,” S&P Global says in its January 2022 report.
“Currently, one of the big advantages for the Timac Agro Austria factory is that we generate energy for our granulation plant partly by using wood chips, so we are not fully dependent on gas. This gives us security of supply at times like these which is extremely important,” Moser said.
He added that in the future companies would be forced to examine more closely the raw materials that they source to ensure that they grow sustainably.
Sustainability strategy for fertilisers
Currently, Timac Agro Austria is working on a much-improved efficient micro-granulate for organic farming which is becoming more of a trending topic. The farmer needs a very small amount of the fertiliser (about 25kg per hectare) which is really cost effective with the ultra-localised fertilisation the product provides.
“What we have discovered is that for crops that are planted in rows, such as maize, corn and soy bean, the fertiliser can be applied directly to the seed via a specialized machine to allow for the plant to start its initial growth spurt,” Moser said.
“Innovation is our driving force. Our research facility is constantly looking for solutions to improve the effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability of our fertilisers.
“We must do more in society, but Timac Agro and Groupe Roullier are already doing a lot in the organic field, also with the calcium carbonate coming from St. Malo, France, so I see this development expanding,” he said.
Involvement with farmers
Timac Agro is proud of the contact they have with farmers. In Austria the company has 17 sales reps who travel from farm to farm. The reps carry out and test soil and plants for the farmers so that the best fertiliser is selected for their particular soil.
“In my opinion farming has changed a lot. Farmers are now better educated, and they are more pre-disposed to use science for their soil and crop analysis. They invest in extremely modern machines and technologies with GPS tracking devices for precision farming. Even the smaller farms are using these technologies, such as precision machines for fertiliser application.
Importantly, he said that the machine manufactures played an essential training role for farmers to educate them on how to use the computers and the functions on the equipment they buy.
“Regarding European initiatives, my feeling is that not all farmers are aware of what is happening on the EU level, in terms of assistance, regulations and even research. But they do get to know about some of the research through our association and involvement in EU projects,” Moser said.
Farming as a profession
“I think farming is one of the hardest jobs you can imagine. To become a successful farmer, you need to be knowledgeable about many issues: you need a lot of commercial and technical know-how, as well as knowledge about land management and the environment,” he said.
“Farmers don’t stop at weekends, and they deal with all the weather-related issues, like changing weather, storms and pests. They also absorb a lot of risk in being reliant on the unpredictable prices of the commodities that affect their business, like the cost of fertilising, plus hope for the best price for their crops in return.
“But I think it is one of the nicest jobs because you are your own boss, you can arrange your time and everything yourself, plus you effectively do home office. I think that loneliness can be a factor in the remote nature of their work, but this can be counteracted by living in small communities where people know each other,” he concluded.
Who is Jakob Moser?
Jakob is a 33-year-old Austrian who grew up on a small farm in the northern province of Styria with his parents in the village of Radmer near the Gesäuse National Park in Styria.
“I studied agriculture at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) in Vienna and finished in 2014.”
What does Jakob do?
Jakob currently is the Business Unit Manager Fertiliser Production for Timac Agro Austria. He switches between the Austrian office headquarters on the banks of the Danube in Pischelsdorf near Vienna, and home office in Graz, Styria.
“I joined Timac Agro as a regional sales manager, responsible for six people, for the southwestern part of Austria, and after one year I became Business Unit Manager.”
“I am head of the whole sales team for Austria, managing around 20 employees at the moment, including holding responsibility for both national and EU projects, as well as the marketing agenda.”
Why is agriculture and farming his passion?
It was at a time when he was working for an engineering company that it became clear to him that he had to return to the agricultural sector because he missed it.
“I like agriculture because you meet down-to-earth people who are easy to talk to, and I feel that I can be open and honest with them. It’s also nice to work in a sector where there is a lot of change taking place. For me, personally, it’s important to work for a company where sustainability is a top priority, along with quality products. It’s a lot of fun working in this environment.”
His role on SUSFERT fertiliser development
He is involved in the SUSFERT field trials on several levels, including finding the right fields in association with farmers to carry out the fertiliser trials. As part of the commercial aspect of SUSFERT, Jakob will write the final business plan for the fertiliser products.
What does Jakob love?
Apart from spending time with his own family, a busy life with two young boys (aged one and three), he loves off-piste ski touring, as well as riding his mountain bike on scenic trails in the Austrian mountains and countryside. After completing his university degree, he took three months off where he did nothing but ski.
“I am a member of the Austrian mountaineering rescue service and am always careful about where I ski tour. I make sure to watch the avalanche risk in the area and choose my place carefully based on the weather conditions.”
What is he proud of?
He is proud of having two female sales reps out of 17 on his Austrian team and hopes to employ more women in the future.
He is also proud of building his ten square metre home office in his garden during the Corona pandemic.
“I really enjoyed building my home office thanks to the help of my friends. It makes a big difference to my work. I have privacy, a good view, and I heat with an infra-red heater.”