Floods, hail, cold snaps, disease: for farmers and others in the agriculture business, every day brings the possibility of a hundred different unavoidable acts of nature that could send their crops and harvests into a tailspin. But no matter how you slice it, “drought” is pretty high up there on the list of undesirable occurences. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s going on right now throughout the country. CNN reports that the United States is facing down the biggest drought on record since the 1950s, and that is something that could affect everyone in major ways.
According to the CNN report, farmers in the Midwest are being hit the hardest and are already seeing issues with their crops, notably those who grow corn and soybeans:
Throughout the Midwest, farmers are seeing signs of damaged crops. In the 18 states that produce most of our corn, only 31% of the crops were rated good or excellent this week, that’s down from 40% last week, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This same time last year, 66% of corn crops were rated good or excellent. Soybean crops, which can be used in creating diesel fuel, are seeing similar troubles; 34% of the U.S. crop was rated good or excellent, down from 40% last week. This time last year, 64% were in that condition.
In case it’s difficult to envision that, CNN’s story is accompanied by brutal and all-too-real photographs of cracked earth and corn husks gone dry and brown. The decrease in a staple commodity like corn is especially worrying because of just how much the United States relies on it. Beyond its use on the cob as a delicious BBQ side dish, corn is used for everything from fuel to animal feed to food additives like corn syrup. That means that not only does a lower corn yield mean higher corn prices for consumers and less sales for farmers, it also means farmers losing money through higher prices for livestock feed and farm equipment fuel, which eventually leads to higher consumer prices for produce as well as meat and dairy.
Meanwhile on the East Coast, Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences reached out to us with a statement from animal science professor Thomas Overton who expresses concern for the dairy industry in a different way – the drought and heat could cause heat stress in the cows themselves, which could be detrimental to both the animals’ health and their milk production:
The extended heat and drought conditions are having great impact on dairy farms. The biggest impact will be on the yield of crops used to feed dairy cows. Unless we get some good rain soon, the yield and quality will be down. The quality and quantity of forages, both silages and hay, directly affects the quantity of milk produced and also require farms to rely more on purchased feeds, which increases their cost of production – which is already high. While these troubles won’t be passed on directly to the consumer, it will affect farmers’ bottom lines, many of whom are already experiencing problems due to last year’s poor crop yield.
Overton encourages farmers to learn and practice cow-cooling strategies to help combat this problem. And for those who would cry, “switch to grass-fed beef!” remember that grass is a plant which needs water, as well. Go vegetarian? We’re cutting out the meat middleman, but it still comes back to needing water to grow those plants that someone will eat. Everyone is affected.
In short, it all sounds like a lot of bad news. CNN further reports that 26 states have thus far made disaster declarations, and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters that he worries for the farmers whose livelihoods are being jeopardized by forces beyond their control.
But to ease anxiety, experts did have some encouraging words toward the situation. William Cox, professor of crop and soil sciences at Cornell, asserted that commodity crops like soybeans and wheat may still manage to come out on top:
Soybean, on the other hand, is not vulnerable to heat and drought stress until August. It can tolerate all kinds of abuse in June and most of July as the important month for Soy is August because that is when it is setting and filling its pods. We could still have a record soybean crop with timely rains from late July through August, despite current conditions.
Also, the hot dry weather was great for wheat harvest. The quality this year is outstanding, making high quality grain and straw.
Consumers, meanwhile, may not face drastic price hikes right away according to the USDA’s Richard Volpe – the industry will have to wait and see before anyone can know what the full effects will be:
"For sure, the full effect of this drought will not be until 2013. It'll be 2013 when we see it and its in the whole supermarket," he [told CNN]. "But if the price of corn shoots up, we’d see this effect within about two to three months. That doesn’t mean we’ll see a complete jump into food prices. It's just that we should start to see the effects."
Only time will tell how this year’s drought will shake out, but one thing no one can disagree with is the hope that relief will come sooner rather than later.
[SOURCE: CNN; Cornell University]