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Your Door Is Ajar

DAVE BEDARD

It’s not been much fun in retail these past few years for those selling fertilizer to farmers. If you had to restock when prices skyrocketed, then deal with outraged farmers who declined to pay those prices, you’d start to wonder how the next growing season would pan out. If you were then stuck with unbooked piles of expensive inventory when prices slipped from their K2-like peaks, you’d also be left to ponder how best to eat those costs.

Beneath that aggravation, maybe more so last week than most, comes an awareness that perhaps not everyone who pops by the store is looking for plant food.

For months, a Winnipeg industry group, the Canadian Association of Agri-Retailers (CAAR), has been publicly beating the drums for funding to boost security on fertilizer dealers’ lots, saying they “should not be expected to shoulder the entire burden of shielding the sector from terrorist penetration.”

Fair enough. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, in which a domestic schmuck blew up a rented truck carrying fuel mixed with ammonium nitrate and murdered over 150 men, women and children, remains burned in our brains. And illicit drugmakers have a known interest in anhydrous ammonia fertilizer, to process crystal meth.

CAAR said last year its proposals for funding still had no blessing from the federal cabinet. And lobbying, of course, takes persistently squeaky wheels. So earlier this month, citing a case in which a load of ammonium nitrate left a Niagara-area retail lot with no data on its buyer, CAAR again publicly urged Ottawa to cost share an “integrated crop input security protocol” and split the $100 million cost of upgrading security at 1,500 input retail sites across Canada.

“To date, the government has not responded,” CAAR said June 11. Federal regulations, tightened in 2008 with more rules on customer ID and record keeping, “do well to deter and thwart pretentious purchases of agri-chemicals, but they do not address the need to physically secure all of our precious crop inputs at retail sites,” CAAR CEO David MacKay said. “It makes no sense to lock the proverbial doors only to leave the windows open.”

Again, fair enough. Except that according to RCMP, the dealer in CAAR’s case of choice apparently let those doors sway in the breeze. Even as Toronto began fortifying for the G-8 and G-20, a stranger towing a trailer behind a minivan was able to roll up to aVineland Growers Co-op outlet on May 26, pay cash, present no ID, load up and haul a “large quantity” of fertilizer to Toronto. That’s according to RCMP and Niagara Regional Police, both eager to find this fellow when they went public with sketches a few days later.

The retailer, police said, appeared to have thought the guy was picking up fertilizer for a known regular customer, but “this was subsequently found not to be the case.” No matter: the mystery man soon came forward and the case was written off as a “gardening incident” with no charges laid.

If the idea of fertilizer going AWOL just ahead of a huge international event sounds familiar, it should. On Dec. 31, 2009, Kinder Morgan, a U. S. transport firm, told RCMP of a “possible discrepancy” in which two tonnes of ammonium nitrate were unaccounted for at its bulk terminal on the B. C. coast.

The company on Jan. 6 called off its search, but RCMP came calling the next day to review the discrepancy. By Jan. 15, RCMP said they’d “not been able to confirm Kinder Morgan’s conclusions.” With the 2010 Olympics looming, an “exhaustive” RCMP audit followed and eventually confirmed the fertilizer had only gone missing on paper.

Mistakes can and do happen and to their credit, neither Vineland nor Kinder Morgan tried to sweep these issues under the rug. Eventually, all minds were put at ease.

But now let’s consider why, perhaps, official Ottawa hasn’t yet picked up when CAAR calls.

“Are you kidding me?” one reader wrote in when Vineland’s tale was told on our websites. “I am sorry, but doesn’t something like a minivan bring up any flags?… It’s an embarrassment to all of us in the ag retail business… I sold it too. But not to a minivan!”

Pity. The police response shows the need for a higher security profile. Retailers – especially those less able to write down pricey inventory or eat the loss through dollar cost averaging – could use the help. Who’s going to help them bolt both the doors and windows now?

We all could, through our tax dollars, as a matter of public safety. Or – CAAR has said as much – farmers will, on their fertilizer bills, while their U. S. friends benefit from tax credits their dealers get on fencing, lighting and cameras. And historically, passing their costs on to the rest of us has not been farmers’ forté. [email protected]

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