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It's a tough time to be a farmer.

Just ask Rachael Sharp, a third-generation farmer in the US state of South Carolina, who grows a varied mix of soybeans, corn, wheat, cotton, peanuts and oats.

She saw fertiliser prices for her crops soar 320% last year - the sharpest rise that she, or her father, can remember.

Ms Sharp says some of her fellow farmers aren't planting anything due to the excessive costs.

Around the world, prices of fertilisers have been breaking records over the past year, amidst extreme weather, transport disruptions, and now the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Russia, which is contending with Western sanctions, produces large quantities of key chemicals used in the production of fertilisers. It also supplies much of the natural gas used to produce ammonia - a major component of nitrogen fertilisers.

The conflict is making other countries aware of their dependency on Russia for fertiliser. The US government has responded by investing in innovative, domestically made fertilisers, but it will take time for those investments to pay off.

Soaring prices are causing farmers to adjust their planting strategies. They're also driving interest in alternatives to conventional fertilisers.

Environmentalists have long-called for such a move. Producing traditional fertilisers is energy intensive, resulting in significant carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

But nitrogen fertilisers have a second sting. When they get into the environment they spur the production of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.

One relatively straightforward measure would be cutting down on the amount of synthetic fertilisers used.

Fertiliser overuse is an enormous problem. It's been estimated that globally, crops use only 35% of the nitrogen and 56% of the phosphorus applied to them; the remainder settles in the environment.

This varies widely, of course. Low-income farmers may be grappling with too little fertiliser, not too much.

But overall, substantially more fertiliser is being added to fields than is needed - increasing costs and environmental damage.

Overuse "is a huge challenge in our field," says Bhupinder Farmaha, a nutrient management specialist at Clemson University in the US, as well as an agricultural extension agent who works with farmers like Ms Sharp.

Overuse is due in part to tradition, and in part to outdated recommendations for fertiliser application that does not take account of specific environmental conditions.


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