By Bill Histed
Most people in Ohio have probably never heard of Mulberry, Florida, a town of around 4,000 people, 40 miles west of Tampa. Over the years, many tons of agri-chemicals produced in local processing plants have been put on Ohio farm fields.
The population figure is misleading since the town was kept from expanding for generations by the phosphate mines. Many people who work in the agri-chemical industry around Mulberry live in surrounding towns. As mining has moved south into neighboring counties, the industry has been disposing of reclaimed mine land which has allowed for housing development.
While the agricultural chemical industry is still a main employer, Mulberry has diversified away from phosphate in the last 20 years due to the consolidation of the industry.
OF THE AREA
Mulberry would not have existed without the phosphate industry. The city owns the Mulberry Phosphate Museum which is open free of charge five days a week, and which has tens of thousands of visitors a year.
Phosphate was first discovered east of the city in the Peace River area by accident. Men with the Army Corps of Engineers discovered Florida phosphate in 1881 while in the region to engineer a route for a canal. This only about 16 years after the end of the War Between The States and the south was generally poor. So nearly all of the money to develop early phosphate mining came from northern bankers and investors, mostly in the east.
There are few phosphate deposits in the United States. The "Bone Valley," as it is known in West Central Florida, at the most involved only several hundred thousand acres.
A much smaller deposit was found in northern Florida near White Springs, and there are very smaller deposits in the Carolinas and Tennessee.
This part of Florida is rich in phosphate for a good reason. What is phosphate? Basically it represents pre-historic plant and animal life that was left over the ages. Scientists believe that this area around Mulberry and surrounding communities was once under the ocean.
Over the years, many fossils of prehistoric life have been round around Mulberry and some specimens may be found in the Mulberry Phosphate Museum. Hence, the name "Bone Valley."
Dragline operators have found various fossils over the years, including the fossilized remains of a huge whale, shark teeth and other fish parts that were fossilized and more.
Florida law now makes it a felony to take fossils and other artifacts from public rivers, parks and other public lands. At one time, there was no law prohibiting it.
Another change in the law over the years requires phosphate companies to reclaim mined land within a certain period of time.
OF THE WORLD
Slogans as, 'We Feed The World" are seen in the area. Mosaic, which owns the lion's share of phosphate and agri-chemical activities in the region, is also the world's largest producer of phosphate and potash.
The company, whose stock is publicly owned, has been acquiring other companies in recent years and has expanded it potash holdings in the western United States.
But the nation's richest phosphate deposits are in the Mulberry area, especially south of the city. At one time, the city's slogan was, "The Phosphate Capital Of The World." But most local pit mines have played out and new mining by walking draglines larger than many houses have moved south to such neighboring counties as Hardee, Desoto, Manatee and Sarasota.
Still the processing plants that make fertilizer, most of it sent by rail out of state, stay just outside of Mulberry. Draglines may be moved, even if by only feet per hour, but chemical plants such as the largest one at New Wales near Mulberry would cost billions of dollar to relocate. So ore is being trucked or sent by railroad into the outlying plants from further and further distances.
Dozens of large lakes have remained after mining. Phosphate, as many substances mined, as an overburden which has to be stripped off. But phosphate deposits generally go down to a maximum depth of 60 feet. Seldom is phosphate found below that level.
Rather than filling in where the materials were removed, the pits become lakes in some cases, just as those with rock quarries in Ohio.
Mosaic is the largest player in its industry in the U.S. It is the result of massive consolidation of farm chemical firms in the area. Among its predecessor companies are International Minerals and Chemicals, Agrico, Virginia-Carolina Chemical Corporation, Royster, Seminole Fertilizer, Grace Fertilizer, TA Minerals and former phosphate arms of Mobil Chemical, Borden and others.
Today, there are still 3,000 employees who work in agri-chemicals in the region, but that is far down from figures years ago. As other industries, consolidation, high tech, outsourcing of functions and new methods have resulted in fewer employees. It was common over the generations to find three and four generations in the same family working for the same phosphate company.
In recent years, Mosaic has become more international and owns interests in phosphate mines and agri-chemical companies in Brazil, the Middle East and it has worked with the Chinese to develop mining there.
At night, the agri-chemical plants may often be seen from miles away, almost appearing as cities in the distance, they are so lighted up.
In the last generation, the plants have been producing electricity instead of buying it in some cases. The process of making farm chemicals produces enough energy and heat that electric companies have actually been buying power from the industry.
The industry has also been good to the railroad, which can ship rail car loads of farm chemicals to eastern and Midwestern customers entirely on its own system.
Several years ago, Mosaic spent tens of millions of dollars to build a professional golf resort southeast of Mulberry called "Windsong." It has been a success with two hotels, a lodge and dining area and golf courses overlooking phosphate lakes and reclaimed land.
CLAIMS FUTURE IS
The future of farm fertilizer is bright, according to the company. It notes that half of the world's crops are due to fertilization and that in the future, the world is going to have to double food production. The company has been investing heavily in foreign phosphate operations, either buying companies, purchasing blocks of stock or acting as advisors to foreign governments that want to mine their own phosphate. China, a generation ago purchased a lot of Florida phosphate, but now it is producing much of its own. Some advisors from the Mulberry area were paid to go to China to assist in the start-ups.
There is some Ohio influence found in the phosphate region. Mulberry has an "Erie Street."
A few miles out of town is the Cleveland Heights Avenue and the Cleveland Heights Golf and Country Club in South Lakeland. Lakeland has an Ohio Avenue.
One of the large trucking companies in the Mulberry area is a company that traces its’ roots to the former Subler Trucking Company out of Versailles, Ohio. Many Ohio farmers have indirectly supported the Mulberry phosphate area over generations.
At one time, Marion Power Shovel in Ohio had a maintenance and parts plant in the Mulberry industrial park to help with equipment repairs and maintenance for the phosphate industry.