Due to an increase in the use of fertilizers to manufacture explosives and drugs, fertilizer security on the farm is a big issue today. Thus, “it's essential we do all we can to make it difficult for thieves to misuse fertilizer,” says Eddie Funderburg, a Noble Foundation soil fertility specialist, Ardmore, OK.

It's widely known, for instance, that ammonium nitrate can make a powerful explosive if mixed, handled and stored in certain ways. But it's not as well known, Funderburg adds, that urea also can be used to make a very powerful explosive.

“Using urea to make explosives results in a very unstable compound — something more powerful and less stable than nitroglycerine,” he adds.

If you store ammonium nitrate or urea on your operation, make sure it's in a secure, easily monitored area, he adds. Don't put it in old, isolated buildings you infrequently visit. And report any suspicious people around the fertilizer area to local law enforcement.

Common fertilizers can also be used to manufacture illegal drugs, namely methamphetamine. The most commonly used fertilizer in the drug manufacturing process is anhydrous ammonia, but a drug manufacturer who's a particularly good chemist can also use urea, ammonium nitrate, liquid UAN solutions and other sources of nitrogen.

“Methamphetamine manufacturers especially want to obtain anhydrous ammonia since it is the easiest fertilizer source to use in making the drug,” he says. “They will stoop to incredible feats of stupidity to obtain the material.”

Anhydrous ammonia is a liquid when stored in strong steel tanks at very high pressure and very low temperatures. But when exposed to normal temperatures and pressures, it becomes a toxic gas that can be very damaging to the eyes and lungs.

When farmers apply anhydrous ammonia, they inject it directly from the storage tank deep into the soil through specially designed knives and hoses. This ensures the farmer doesn't have to handle it.

But in their zeal to obtain anhydrous ammonia, Funderburg says drug manufacturers often try to store the material in glass jars, Thermos jugs, ice chests and soft drink bottles.

“Keep in mind that handling anhydrous ammonia in any way other than a closed system with strong steel tanks is extremely dangerous,” he adds.

Unfortunately, thieves often leave valves open, releasing large amounts of ammonia into the air even though they stole only a small amount. This can be dangerous to people living in the area.

Here's a list of steps the Fertilizer Institute recommends farmers and ranchers follow to help foil thieves:

  • Be alert. Keep an eye out for unfamiliar or suspicious people attempting to purchase anhydrous ammonia from you or your neighbors.

  • Don't leave tanks unattended for long periods of time.

  • Immediately report releases of ammonia to local police.

  • Position tanks in open areas where they can easily be seen from the road.

  • Return tanks to fertilizer dealerships immediately after use.

  • Watch for items left behind such as duct tape, buckets, ice chests, garden hoses and bicycle inner tubes.

  • Watch for and report suspicious looking people around your fertilizer tanks. They may be casing the premises for a late-night raid.

  • Buy and install locks for the anhydrous ammonia valves and tanks.

To learn more about the Noble Foundation, visit its Web site at www.noble.org.