The whir of a fan cooling a greenhouse floats across the land that Justin Miller tends with his family. Cherry Hill Farms is in southern Davie County near a bend in the Yadkin River.

“We are first-generation produce farmers on fifth-generation farmland,” he says.

Inside the greenhouse, 8,000 tomato plants are growing. Not far away, a field will be readied for next year's strawberry crop. Miller uses a special low-salt fertilizer he used to buy from Winston Weaver to make the berries more flavorful. Because of the fire that recently destroyed the facility, he'll now have to look elsewhere, which might mean a trip as far away as Georgia.

 With fuel prices also soaring, he knows it means he'll have to take a financial hit.

“We're going to try to do all of our adjusting this spring, and just really try to sharpen our pencils and try to see how to make it work,” he says. “We can't… can't do it just for the fun of it.”

Fertilizer prices were already rising long before the Winston Weaver fire. As North Carolina State University agricultural economist Blake Brown points out, it's a global market. Supply chain disruptions, increased natural gas prices in Europe, and trade disputes with China have all played a role. The war in Ukraine has also led to embargoes on Russia, a major producer.

“Fertilizer prices for many types of fertilizer have doubled and for some types have almost tripled,” he says. “Fertilizer is, for most field crops, it's the largest expense category.”

And then in late January, one of the biggest emergencies in Winston-Salem history struck. It involved 600 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the Winston Weaver fertilizer plant. 

“When I learned how much ammonium nitrate was on our site last night, I felt uneasy at a fire scene as I've ever felt in my 33 years in this business,” Winston-Salem Fire Chief Trey Mayo said the day after the fire broke out, explaining his fears about the explosion potential of that chemical. It's a key ingredient in making the company's fertilizer, which was sold across the Southeast.

Thankfully, that massive explosion never happened. But with the facility destroyed, a new gap entered the fertilizer market.

Brown says in a typical year, the world market could easily replace what was lost in the fire. But there are so many restraints on the fertilizer industry now that filling the void is going to be difficult. As a result, Brown says 2022 will likely be a hard year for farmers. 

“Government safety net programs are generally based on low prices,” he says. “When the price declines there's safety net that kicks in and helps some. But this is a very unusual situation where we have commodity prices go even higher but the increase in input costs has outpaced the increase in commodity prices. So there's really no safety net for this kind of situation. It's so unusual.”

Eddie Leagans grows hay and raises cattle on the family farm his father bought in 1940 in the Davie County community of Farmington.

He says his fertilizer expenses are up 65 percent compared to last year. It's costing him more and more to provide feed for his livestock, and he's not alone.

“Everybody I talk to wonders, kinda wonders what they're going to do,” he says.

He knows consumers are seeing higher prices too. He has a simple request: Don't blame the farmers.

“We can't set the prices we receive, it's just kind of out of our hands,” he says. “We're just trying to produce products out there. And of course, it hits us also. We go to the grocery store as well, and stuff is higher.” 

There's a limit to how much of this cost can be passed on to consumers. Niki Farrington is a chef at Willow's Bistro, a farm-to-table restaurant in downtown Winston-Salem. She discussed the high prices from the kitchen as she prepared for the dinner crowd.  

“We can't jack it up always to eat what we're spending on it," says Farrington. "So our food costs are astronomical where our profit margins are getting smaller and smaller.”

Farrington says she's having to make more and more visits to tables to explain why bills are higher as a result of rising farm costs. 

She says the economic pain for the latest jump in fertilizer prices — bumped up by the war in Ukraine globally and the Winston Weaver fire locally — probably won't be felt for another two months.

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