Drought In U.S. Now Worst Since 1956; Food Prices To Spike, Economy To Suffer

Jul 17, 2012
Originally published on July 17, 2012 2:16 pm

With about 55 percent of the continental U.S. suffering from "moderate to extreme drought" conditions the nation is withering under conditions that haven't been this bad since 1956, according to a new report from National Climatic Data Center.

And this "worst-in-a-generation drought from Indiana to Arkansas to California is damaging crops and rural economies and threatening to drive food prices to record levels," Bloomberg News warns.

That's bad news for a U.S. economy still struggling to gain strength. As Bloomberg notes, agriculture has been "one of the most resilient industries in the past three years." But now, that sector is facing an awful time. Already, the U.S. Agriculture Department has designated 1,016 counties in 26 states as natural disaster areas — meaning hard-hit farmers in those areas can apply for low-interest emergency loans from USDA. According to Bloomberg, that's "the biggest such declaration ever."

What's more, "the drought could get a lot worse before it gets better," says Joe Glauber, chief economist at the Agriculture Department, in this morning's Washington Post. There's no relief likely this week. The Post says that:

"Forecasters expect a high-pressure area to remain entrenched over the Rockies and central United States. As a result, any storm systems will probably track across southern Canada, missing the worst-affected areas.

"The bottom line: No significant rain is expected."

And it's going to be very hot in large parts of the nation again today and the rest of this week. Weatherunderground.com's current "severe weather" map shows heat advisories in states from Iowa and Missouri east through Pennsylvania and up into New England.

Weather Underground's Jeff Masters adds that the costs associated with this drought "are certain to be many billions of dollars, and the disaster could be one of the top 10 most expensive weather-related disasters in U.S. history." As he points out, "droughts historically have been some of the costliest U.S. weather disasters."

Update at 4:03 p.m. ET. It Started Promising:

Bryn Bird, a second generation farmer from central Ohio, tells All Things Considered's Robert Siegel that this spring looked promising. She said it was mild and many farmers had an early start.

But, now, it looks like most of their sweet corn crop will be lost to drought.

That means that Bird and her family will take a $30,000 to $40,000 loss.

"For a family farm," she said, "that's a significant loss."

Also, she said, because sweet corn is not a commodity crop, it can't be insured.

If the drought continues, Bird said, the sweet corn could become livestock feed. Her family, she said, has also turned to growing more tomatoes to deal with the drought.

More of Robert's conversation with Bird will air on tonight's All Things Considered.

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The drought that half the continental U.S. is experiencing these days is the worst in 56 years. That's according to data this week from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA. The hot, dry conditions have spelled doom for many crops, especially corn. Bryn Bird is a second-generation farmer in Central Ohio, and she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

BRYN BIRD: Thank you. Great to be here.

SIEGEL: And how's your corn doing?

BIRD: Not very good. It's just sitting in the field, kind of just looking the same it did two months ago.

SIEGEL: How tall should it be at this point and how tall is it?

BIRD: Well, we grow sweet corn, so usually about this time, we were hoping to have sweet corn by the 4th of July usually seven feet tall, taller than us, you know, wading through it. And, at this point, it's not even three feet, maybe three in some areas.

SIEGEL: Do you have any hopes of this corn ever being harvested or is it going to die out there on the stalk?

BIRD: We do expect these first two plantings to completely die. They didn't tassel. The third planting has tasseled, but it's not silking, so it's not creating the ears of corn. We had two other layer plantings that, if everybody can get out and do their rain dances, maybe we could have a late salvage of some smaller ears, but we aren't really holding out too much hope.

SIEGEL: Now, how many acres of corn do you have planted there?

BIRD: Twenty-two acres of sweet corn.

SIEGEL: And where do you sell that corn, usually?

BIRD: We sell most of our corn through the farm markets. We go to five local farm markets. We sell into two local independent grocery stores in Columbus, Ohio, and to about 10 local area restaurants. And then we also have the subscription CSAs where people pay in advance and they receive bags of produce a week and there's about 210 subscriptions each year.

SIEGEL: So this is a fairly small operation you're running there.

BIRD: It's a small operation compared to field commodity corn producers, but for sweet corn producers, it is - we're looking at pretty much a $30,000 to $40,000 loss this year. For a family farm, that's a pretty significant loss and one of the bigger issues that - because we grow sweet corn, which is considered a specialty crop - it's something you eat, not one of the commodity crops like the field corn and soybeans, our insurance is different. So we aren't able to insure our crops the same way that commodity producers are. So we don't have proper insurance products out there and so we won't be able to get any money back on our losses.

SIEGEL: Well, what does it mean for your family when you say you take a loss? You just go deep in the hole? Do you dig into savings or sell off land? What do you do?

BIRD: We dig into savings and we become very innovative. My brother right now, who is the main producer on the farm, has decided to triple his tomato production. We can irrigate our tomatoes. It's a little more costly to irrigate tomatoes, but we can do that much cheaper than what we could with other products, so he has already put out three and four additional plantings of tomatoes. We have hoop houses, which are unhued greenhouse structures that can extend our season and so we've been also taking on additional CSA members for a fall CSA, which we usually don't do in hopes to diversify, diversify, diversify and try and make up for some of this loss.

But, again, it is savings. As farmers, you do have to - those great, great years, you have to put away that money and not spend it on one of those shiny tractors and know that this bad year is right around the corner.

SIEGEL: Well, Bryn Bird, thanks a lot for talking with us.

BIRD: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: Bryn Bird's family owns Bird's Haven Farms near Granville, Ohio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.