A friendship and a partnership. Since the late 70s, Galen Mears and Ron Stutsman have been friends and partners in business. That’s also about the same time that Galen built his first portable liquid poly-phosphate processing unit to make ammonium phosphate fertilizers – the reason there’s a big cloud of steam coming from our campus a few times every year.
“The one he built before was wooden and when you fired it up, yeah, it leaked a little but once it would heat up and expanded it would seal up tighter than a drum,” said Kevin Mears, production supervisor for Mears, Inc. “But my dad (Galen) got tired of getting (fertilizer) baths, so he sat down with a grocery sack and drew out this unit.”
Built in 1976-1977 and online in 1978, the unit that visited us in September is one of four in the Mears fleet that will travel to over 30 states during the year.
“These can run any time of the year, and we do it all year,” said Kevin. “When it’s really cold and you think about how much water goes in here, we have to get everything set up, make sure we have anhydrous (ammonia), make sure the rail cars (containing phosphoric acid) will actually flow then bring the water in. As long as we don’t stop for more than 15 minutes, the water lines tend not to freeze.”
“The anhydrous comes into the unit cold (-28°F), is heated to about 111°F and comes down to meet the acid,” said Kevin. “The acid is a little over 140°F, but the product will be 620°F after they meet.”
After the initial reaction in the pipe reactor, the product is ran through exchangers utilizing the proprietary technology Galen developed. The finished product enters our tanks at a temperature of 85°F or less.
“The higher the heat when it goes to storage, it won’t hold and it falls out,” said Kevin. “The cooler it is when it goes in, it’ll hold those (poly) chains longer and you won’t have as much of your material falling out – magnesium, carbon.”
Besides temperature, Mears, Inc. also monitors rates of anhydrous and acid, the product density and the pH by pulling samples to test every 15 minutes.
“We don’t go by speed as far as how fast we can run the cars,” said Kevin. “We treat, as my father said, your pocketbook, like our pocketbook. We want to make sure what we put in your tank is going to last and that’s why we watch this.”
September was the third visit this year for Mears, where they went through 12 cars of phosphoric acid to produce 10.6-36-0 black fertilizer. Nearly 80 percent of the product that entered our tanks in September was applied this fall.
“What we do with the phosphate here is we mix loads that will go straight out to the fields as a plow down,” said Pat Schneider, retail fertilizer plant manager. “We can mix the phosphate with potash, nitrogen and chemicals and it is evenly spread throughout the whole field because it’s in liquid form.”
Each formula is custom blended as it is needed using computer-automated Junge controls to get a precise fertilizer mix.
“Products are made within a couple weeks of application,” said Matt Luerkens, wholesale fertilizer plant operator. “We don’t want product to fall out (sitting in storage).”
In addition to the 10.6-36-0 black fertilizer Mears was making on-site, we also handle a lot of 11-37-0 green fertilizer as well.
“100 percent of the black we make will go out wholesale and run through TerraGators,” added Luerkens. “When you make a starter with black, there’s more impurities making it harder to run through equipment.”
The difference between green and black fertilizer is not just in the N-P-K makeup but also in the amount of carbon each contains. Green fertilizer has the carbon removed and is utilized in 98 percent of our starter fertilizer mixes for spring and fall application. However, both the green and black phosphate-grade liquid has the capability to be mixed with fertilizer and chemicals in a one-pass application.
By effectively managing the short shelf life of ammonium polyphosphate, it not only guarantees our customers are getting a quality product but also means Mears gets to visit often and continue the now multi-generational friendship and partnership.
“This is our third time for 2021,” said Kevin. “All of us boys have worked for dad, and I’ve known Stutsman’s since I was a kid. We love working with them.”