A mundane mineral could put Arizona on the international farming map.
As strategic materials go, potash isn’t particularly sexy. The crop fertilizer resembles tiny shards of rust-colored glass, and farmers once made it by soaking ash from burned-up plants in a pot. It’s also used to make beer. Another fun fact: Potash helps to grow more and healthier crops. As the world population expands, it’s no wonder this drab-looking mineral is in demand. And Arizona is said to be sitting on a hoard around Holbrook potentially worth $1 trillion.
It’s a prospective economic engine that could create thousands of jobs for the next 50 years and beyond, according to advocates for mining companies – both local and national – looking to dig into the would-be boom. But factors including environmental concerns and fluctuating market prices have led some speculators to temper their zeal.
Ken Bond is not in the tempered-zeal camp. He’s investment manager for Canada-based Passport Potash, the largest of three companies vying for a chunk of Arizona’s potential potash wealth. Passport has leased about 122,000 acres near Holbrook, mostly from ranchers and the Hopi Tribe.
Arizona has no active potash mine, but a mine in New Mexico has been running since the 1930s. Discovered in the 1960s, Arizona’s potash didn’t spark commerical interest until 2008, when the price rocketed to $1,000 per ton and a report by the Arizona Geological Survey estimated a trove of up to 2.5 billion tons. Since then, Passport has drilled about 140 exploratory mines. Other firms eyeing Arizona potash are Denver’s Prospect Global and state senator Bob Worsley’s NZ Legacy. “It’s a rare thing to have a deposit like this,” Worsley says.
For stuff buried in the ground, potash is relatively easy to get. Bond adds that Arizona’s stash – while not the world’s largest – is closer than most to the surface. Passport plans to dig tunnels as far as 1,400 feet, so miners can get the mineral via boring and cutting machines. Potash is in high demand in India, Brazil and China, but the U.S. is also a major consumer. Consequently, much of Arizona’s potash will likely feed domestic agriculture, Bond says.
In 2012, Forbes blogger Richard Finger wrote that Arizona’s stash could free the U.S. of dependence on foreign sources. But Holbrook Tribune-News reporter Nick Worth says local excitement’s cooled since 2008. A long regulatory process means it could be years before ground is broken. And the market price yo-yos. Political machinations between the Russian government and a Belarus company recently sent the price crashing to $334 per ton. “People are... tempering their enthusiasm,” Worth says.
Another issue lurks in Holbrook’s motto, “Gateway to the Petrified National Forest.” That scenic treasure draws 600,000 visitors a year. Some proposed digs lie only a few hundred yards from the park boundary, notes National Park Service superintendent Brad Traver.
Environmental worries include surface sinking and windblown salt. Bond says Passport will mine outside the forest: “We don’t believe there should be much of a concern.”
Traver says the companies are “saying the right things.” But mining could go on for half a century or more, he says. “None of us are going to be here when the mine is matured or finished.”
Date Site - Potash isn’t the only in-demand Arizona export. Consider these heritage crops.
Sphinx Dates: The black Sphinx (Medjool) date has been growing here since the 1920s.
“Dwarf” Durum Wheat: An Arizona bounty since the 1970s. Yuma grows 40,000 acres of the grain, at 3.5 tons per acre.
Tepary Beans: Introduced to Anglo farmers in the 19th century by the Tohono O’odham, they pack up to 30 percent protein.