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Translating Food Technology: Why Use Anhydrous Ammonia?

Why do farmers use anhydrous ammonia?

If it's spring, it must be meth season.

Recent news reports about illegal labs manufacturing the drug methamphetamine from Fairbury, Waverly and others have raised the perrennial question: If illegal methamphetamine labs make such ready use of the common crop fertilizer anhydrous ammonia, why do farmers continue to make it their most popular source of crop nutrients?

Although more meth labs appear to opt for a portable "one-pot" method that doesn't require use of annyhdrous ammonia (they make the ammonia from first-aid cold packs rather than steal it), reports of ammonia thefts still exist around the nation. And although thefts are down, farmers still can suffer tremendous losses when a thief steals $10 to $15 in ammonia but then damages the valves or hoses on a tank and releases $3500 in ammonia to the atmosphere and leaves behind $1,000 in eqipment damage.

Why then do farmers continue to make use of anhydrous? Here's why:

It's the most efficient and thus most environmentally friendly choice. Farmers use ammonia to obtain the element nitrogen. Ammonia is stored in its liquid form in a pressure tank at about 100 pounds per square inch, until it's injected under the soil from a tank pulled by a tractor, carefully controlled by an intricate system of valves and meters according to the calculated requirements of the crop. As the ammonia is released from the pressurized tank into the distribution system, the sudden drop in pressure causes it to boil, releasing the elemental nitrogen that can be immediately used by fast-growing plants that demand a large supply of nitrogen. Research shows nitrogen supplied as ammonia is used by crops as effectively as nitrogen from any other source. In fact, according to one estimate, to maintain soil fertility without such man-made sources of nitrogen, the 11 million tons of industrially created nitrogen that US farmers use each year, much of it supplied as ammonia, would have to be replaced by manure from approximately 1 billion additional cattle. Those cattle would require another 2 billion acres to feed. That feed demand would take roughly the entire continental United States.

It's the most cost-effective. Because ammonia is so efficient at supplying the largest elemental fertilizer need for row crops, it's naturally the most cost effective when you consider all costs including handling and trucking.

It best stretches farmers' time and resources. What's known as the "field capacity" of a planting system depends on how often a tractor pulling a planter must stop to refill with seed and fertilizer. By combining new-age planting technology that includes an air-seeder, granular fertilizer and an ammonia tank, farmers can achieve the largest number of acres between fills. The high content of nitrogen in ammonia allows a farmer to plant almost 1.8 times more acres per ton of fertilizer than the next most common dry source of nitrogen.

Farmers recognize illegal drug manufacturing is an important problem to both rural and urban society. However, restrictions on storage and use of ammonia similar to those grocery retailers face in stocking products containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine should balance efforts to combat the problem with burdens placed on the business' ability to function. Farmers and fertilizer detailers have worked together to take a bite out of ammonia thefts by watching storage facilities for illegal activity, keeping track of portable tanks, immediately reporting illegal activity to police, and by keeping careful record of use. Grocers and the general public can also help in this effort by always being on the lookout for these telltale signs of ammonia theft:
• Partially opened tank valves and/or leaking tanks (ammonia can often be seen as a vapor cloud)
• Common items sometimes left behind after theft including buckets, coolers, duct tape, garden hoses and bicycle inner tubes
• The presence of unfamiliar or suspicious-looking individuals during daylight hours (thieves often case a target beforehand)
• The sure signs of meth labs, including strong odors, blacked-out windows (to obstruct observation) and large amounts of trash.

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