Dividend payers deserve a berth in any long-term stock portfolio. But seemingly attractive dividend yields are not always as fetching as they may appear. Let's see which companies in the agricultural chemicals industry offer the most promising dividends.

Yields and growth rates and payout ratios, oh my!
Before we get to those companies, though, you should understand just why you'd want to own dividend payers. These stocks can contribute a huge chunk of growth to your portfolio in good times, and bolster it during market downturns.

As my colleague Matt Koppenheffer has noted: "Between 2000 and 2009, the average dividend-adjusted return on stocks with market caps above $5 billion and a trailing yield of 2.5% or better was a whopping 114%. Compare that to a 19% drop for the S&P 500."

When hunting for promising dividend payers, unsophisticated investors will often just look for the highest yields they can find. While these stocks will indeed pay out the most, the yield figures apply only for the current year. Extremely steep dividend yields can be precarious, and even solid ones are vulnerable to dividend cuts.

When evaluating a company's attractiveness in terms of its dividend, it's important to examine at least three factors:

  1. The current yield
  2. The dividend growth
  3. The payout ratio

If a company has a middling dividend yield, but a history of increasing its payment substantially from year to year, it deserves extra consideration. A $3 dividend can become $7.80 in 10 years, if it grows at 10% annually. (It will top $20 after 20 years.) Thus, a 3% yield today may be more attractive than a 4% one, if the 3% company is rapidly increasing that dividend.

Next, consider the company's payout ratio, which reflects what percentage of income the company is spending on its dividend. In general, the lower the number, the better. A low payout ratio means there's plenty of room for generous dividend increases. It also means that much of the company's income remains in its hands, giving it a lot of flexibility. That money can fund the business's expansion, pay off debt, buy back shares, or even buy other companies. A steep payout ratio reflects little flexibility for the company, less room for dividend growth, and a stronger chance that if the company falls on hard times, it will have to reduce its dividend.

Peering into agricultural chemicals
Below, I've compiled some of the major dividend-paying players in the agricultural chemicals industry (and a few smaller outfits), ranked according to their dividend yields:

Company

Recent Yield

5-Year Avg. Annual Div. Growth Rate

Payout Ratio

My Watchlist

Terra Nitrogen (NYSE: TNH) 4.8% 25.5% 63% Add
Scotts Miracle-Gro 1.7% 0.7% 26% Add
Monsanto (NYSE: MON) 1.6% 27.9% 52% Add
Syngenta (NYSE: SYT) 1.4% 16.0% 31% Add
American Vanguard (NYSE: AVD) 0.7% (15.5%) 8% Add
PotashCorp 0.5% 55.4% 20% Add
CF Industries 0.3% 84.4% 7% Add
Mosaic (NYSE: MOS) 0.3% New dividend 5% Add
Agrium 0.1% 0% 2% Add

Source: Motley Fool CAPS.

If you focus on dividend yield alone, you might end up with Terra Nitrogen and Scotts Miracle-Gro, but a glance at their dividend growth rates shows how different they are. Their effective yields will probably be even more divergent in the future.

Instead, let's focus on the dividend growth rate first, where CF Industries and PotashCorp lead the way. Their yields are so low, though, that those growth rates aren't very meaningful. Their low payout ratios leave plenty of room for further expansion -- but they'd need quite a lot of it to make their yields attractive.

If you're familiar with the industry, you may have noticed that some of its denizens, such as Rentech (AMEX: RTK) and China Green Agriculture (NYSE: CGA), aren't on the list. That's because younger or smaller companies often grow faster than large, established ones, and need to plow excess cash into that growth. Both Rentech and China Green sport market caps below $300 million, for example. Rentech's growth potential lies in its clean-energy technology, creating synthetic fuels from various waste products. Global Gains pick China Green Agriculture aims to help meet the growing global demand for food with its fertilizers. Such companies can perform well, but they're not ready to pay out regular income.

Just right
As I see it, Terra Nitrogen gives you the best of everything for a dividend stock. Its dividend yield is strong and has been growing at a good clip, albeit irregularly. Its payout ratio leaves room for significant continued growth. Monsanto and Syngenta are also worth a look, despite their considerably lower current yields.

Of course, as with all stocks, you'll want to look into more than just a company's dividend situation before making a purchase decision. Still, these stocks' compelling dividends make them great places to start your search, particularly if you're excited by the prospects for this industry.

Do your portfolio a favor. Don't ignore the growth you can gain from powerful dividend payers.

To get more ideas for great dividend-paying stocks, read about "13 High-Yielding Stocks to Buy Today."

We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of China Green Agriculture. China Green Agriculture and Syngenta are Motley Fool Global Gains recommendations. Motley Fool Options has recommended a synthetic long position on Monsanto. The Fool owns shares of China Green Agriculture. Try any of our investing newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.