Athens Review, Athens, Texas

June 6, 2014

Ag Services undecided on future

Chad Wilson
The Athens Review

Athens — In the span of a nine days, Athens' Kenneth McGee Jr. experienced a whirlwind of emotions that left him speechless.

McGee was named the 2014 recipient of the Joe B. Fulgham Agriculturist of the Year award during the 51st annual Farm and Ranch Tour on May 20 in a surprise announcement. He was stunned.

Just nine days later, May 29, McGee was left stunned for another reason, as his business caught fire in downtown Athens, just minutes after he left for the day.

Ag Services, located on Larkin Street, just a couple blocks north of the square, caught fire Thursday evening, resulting in a multi-department investigation. Officials have yet to allow McGee to clean-up the site.

Still reeling from the shock of the fire, McGee said he has received nothing but support from his family, friends and customers.

“I've had many calls of support from my customers and friends,” McGee said. “What happened is a tragedy.  I don't know what happened.  There have been other fires at fertilizer plants, only one has exploded. Fertilizer is not going to explode, unless someone makes it blow up.  It doesn't accidently go off, and it doesn't burn.”

The Athens Fire Department responded to the scene immediately, before using lessons learned from the West explosion to best serve the city. McGee is pleased with their efforts.

“They did a great job. We have talked about this for a year, what we should do and they did exactly what we talked about,” he said. “I'm not a fireman, but I know about the product, and they know my feelings. I don't question anything they have done. They have been 100-percent great.”

Many have questioned why the facility was located near the heavily-populated downtown area. McGee said the reason for the location was the railroad.

“When it was bought several years ago, it was because it was on the railroad, and that is how fertilizer was delivered then,” he said.

The cause of the fire was ruled “undetermined.” The same description can be used to define McGee's future in the business of selling ammonium-nitrate.

“I don't know if I can afford to build another blending plant.  This is not a multi-million-dollar business.  We have made a living by working hard at low prices,” he said. “As the years go on, the number of farmers gets less.  There were probably six (facilities) in and around Athens 10 years ago. There were two last week. Now there is one.”

When mixed with the right ingredients, ammonium nitrate can explode. But the Athens facility, that routinely passed state inspections, only housed one product, ammonium nitrate, and it did so for 50 years before last Thursday's fire.

“It is way less (explosive) than gasoline,” McGee said. “You can accidently blow up a gas can. If you smoke around the fertilizer, it is not going to blow up. If you throw (a cigarette) down, (fertilizer) is not going to blow up. If you catch it on fire, it is not going to blow up. It is not flammable. You have to deliberately take steps, and make it blow up. Or non-deliberately, but there are several things you have to do to do that. As long as nobody is trying to blow it up, it is not going to.”

Gasoline is a common, highly-combustible product that is used by nearly everyone daily, without a second thought. While warning signs are placed at convenience stations, alerting motorists to turn off cell phones, discard static electricity, not to smoke or get back into the car while fueling, hundreds ignore the warnings every day without regard to safety.

Like gasoline, fertilizer is needed daily by farmers across the country.

“Fertilizer is necessary for plant growth. Most people think their food comes from Brookshire's, but it comes from the farmers,” McGee said. “If you make it harder on the farmers, they need more money, or they'll quit. When they quit, there is no food. Everybody provides a service. Part of that service in our country is fertilizer, and you are not going to make enough crops without it, because of our soil structure and rain fall.”

While various forms of fertilizer are used across the nation, ammonium nitrate is one of the top products for the local agricultural community, both for its cost and effectiveness.

“For your agriculture community, it is very important,” McGee said. “Say they don't have it in Iowa, they don't farm like we do.  They farm corn.  They put it out in the winter, cover it up with dirt, and so they don't have the volatilization. It is not as important up there.  But if you get here in the coastal regions, where there is grass, and you are just putting in it pastures, it is more important.”

One of McGee's customers for more than 40 years, and fellow Joe B. Fulgham Agriculturist of the Year award winner Danny Davis, said he plans to continue to buy fertilizer from Ag Services, because it is vital to his business.

“We use it for producing grass for grazing and for bailing hay. Also, in the fall it is used for fertilizer that goes on our cover crops, our winter pastures,” Davis said. “It is essential, vital in agriculture.”

Davis said there are other products used, like chicken litter or human waste, but the ammonium-nitrate fertilizer is the best.

“I am not familiar with the results from the chicken litter or human waste. For me personally, I think it is vital to what we do,” he said. “I don't know how you can get the same results without using ammonium nitrate.”

Another popular form of fertilizer used is urea. While effective on other soils and crops, it does not have the same benefits in the grasslands of East Texas.

“If you use urea, it will volatilize on a hot humid day, and not under the ground. How many hot and humid days do we have here? When you put it out, and lose a percentage every day, or maybe all of it, that hits the bottom line of the farmer and rancher,” McGee said. “Until they develop some different technologies, I don't know that we have any choice. Urea is used, but it is used in farming country where they cover it. They do it all different than we do. They put out a lot more fertilizer, and they put it out early, because they have tighter, heavier soils that the water doesn't go through, so it doesn't leach away. We can't do that here, because the water goes through the sand, and it will take the fertilizer away.  You can only put out enough for a period of time. You have to come back two or three times, rather than do it once for the whole year like they would do, say in the Black Lands, the farm country.”

With one of the top crops in the area being hay, ammonium nitrate is the “go-to” product, because farmers do not have to tear up the grass.

“Grass, you can't tear it up and get underground, you have to put it on top of the ground. That means for the only crop we grow, our hay, you end up getting a lot of volatilization and losing it. (Ammonium nitrate) has a lower carbon footprint than urea. It is the opposite charge as the soil, so as it melts, it attracts to the soil, instead of repelling like the urea. It is pretty valuable.”

McGee does not know yet what the future holds for Ag Services, but he would like to continue to carry ammonium-nitrate fertilizer for his customers.

He said there was very little loss of the fertilizer due to the fire at the location on Larkin Street.

While recovery from the fire is a long road, McGee has the support of the agricultural community.

“We have known the McGee family for more than 30 years. They are hard workers that are extremely dedicated to this community,” Davis said. “From their support of FFA and 4-H, to all the countless hours they spend every year on the Henderson County Livestock Show, they are dedicated to Athens, and we fully support them during this tough time.”