A record-setting drought grips more than half of the contiguous United States. For farmers the drought is ruining harvests, but driving up the price of crops that do survive. Higher wholesale prices will soon translate into rising costs at the supermarket.
The United States Department of Agriculture recently lowered the expected yield of 2012's corn harvest by a further 1.8 billion bushels, meaning the projected corn crop has now dropped by 46.2 million tons. The ailing corn crop won't be helped by the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources' order that 1,106 farmers stop irrigating farmland on Friday of last week due to the drought affecting the entire state, reported the DesMoines Register.
Nebraska is the nation's third largest corn producer after Iowa and Illinois. But unlike the other two states in the top three, Nebraska's corn relies heavily on irrigation. Across the country lack of irrigation has led to failing harvests.
On top of the drought, tortuously high temperatures struck just as corn was entering its critical pollination phase. At temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit corn pollen begins to die off, resulting in cobs with few kernels.
Small producers have been especially hard hit since many can't afford irrigation or don't use it in order to attract the business of consumers who want food that doesn't come from mechanized agriculture. At a farmer's market in Indiana the vegetables and sweet corn for sale by local small farmers looked disappointingly scrawny, reported the Indianapolis Star.
“If you look at your lawn, think of it as a miniature corn field,” organic farmer Jonathan Lawler told the Star. “If your lawn is brown, corn is going to do the same thing.”
Most of the corn in the United States is not eaten directly by people, but is instead used for animal feed, ethanol biofuel, and to produce high-fructose corn syrup, the enzymatically-treated, intensely sweet ingredient in everything from breakfast cereal to soda. The failing crops will result in a reduced amount of grain on the market.
"It's likely that in three to six months from now, you will start seeing an increase in prices in the meat case," Iowa farmer Dave Miller told CNN. "There will be a quicker impact on eggs and poultry because the production cycle is shorter."
Purdue University agricultural economist Chis Hurt estimated that food inflation will be 3 percent to 3.5 percent in 2012, compared to less than 1 percent in 2010, according to the Indianapolis Star.
A withered corn field in Castroville, TX (Billy Hathorn, Wikimedia Commons)