By Rod Nickel and Tom Polansek
WINNIPEG, Manitoba/CHICAGO, March 26 (Reuters) - North America's biggest farm suppliers are accelerating shipments of fertilizer, seeds and agricultural chemicals to crop-growing regions in an unprecedented race against the coronavirus that threatens to disrupt planting season.
The timing could not be worse for farmers preparing to plant crops. Disruptions in deliveries of fertilizer, seeds or chemicals could reduce harvests and incomes for U.S. farmers who were hoping this year to sell more crops to China under the terms of a trade agreement signed in January.
Nutrien Ltd, North America's biggest farm retail supplier, moved up shipments of crop supplies by two to four weeks from its normal spring schedule as a precaution, Chief Executive Officer Chuck Magro said.
"In the northern (United States) and in Canada, we are forward-placing a lot faster and a lot more volume than we normally do at this time," Magro said. "Food security for the fall and for next year will be determined by what happens in the next two months in the Northern Hemisphere."
Nutrien barred travel by employees between sites, asked farmers to place orders by phone or online, and required truckers delivering supplies to remain in their vehicles while on site, Magro said.
Corteva Inc and its distributors advised retail outlets to ensure they have 30 to 90 days of farm chemicals on hand, said Judd O'Connor, president of U.S. commercial business. Some farmers wanted to take seed deliveries early, and most seed is now in farmers' hands, he said.
"It's the entire supply chain looking at the environment outside of ag saying, 'How do we make sure that we can put this crop in the ground and take care of it?'" O'Connor said.
The United States and Canada are among the world's biggest grain exporters. In China, where the outbreak started in December, the coronavirus shut down roads and restricted the movement of livestock.
Four U.S. farmers told Reuters that local farm cooperatives are warning farmer customers in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin that supplies of herbicides and pesticides could be delayed in the short run. The concern is that fewer truck drivers will be willing or able to haul chemicals stored in the south.
The International Grains Council, an inter-governmental body, separately said transport restrictions related to the virus could disrupt spring fieldwork.
Syngenta, the Swiss agrichemicals giant bought by ChemChina , is increasing distribution capacity and positioning inventory to supply U.S. farmers from alternative locations if necessary, according to the company.
Rival seed and chemical company BASF SE fielded calls from customers nervous about the risk for disruptions, although there have been no material shortages in North America, vice president Scott Kay said.
Farmers are worried about losing access to supplies and to commercial elevators that buy their stored grain, said Gunter Jochum, president of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association. Companies that run those elevators have emailed farmers telling them to stay in their trucks during deliveries, he said.
U.S. nitrogen fertilizer producer CF Industries Holdings Inc allowed wholesalers and retailers to take delivery of supplies early, senior vice president Bert Frost said. The company also coordinated with truckers, railroads and barge operators that move its products.
"Nobody thought this would get like it is," Frost said. "We're every day, every hour working through scenarios and trying to be in the best position we can." (Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg and Manitoba and Tom Polansek in Chicago. Additional reporting by PJ Huffstutter in Chicago; Editing by David Gregorio)