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Amercan Agriculture: Drought Edges Toward A Food Panic

U.S. food situ may be headed for a panic – worse than the 1988 drought. Farmers already panicking.

Two thoughts struck me early Wednesday morning: America is steaming toward a food train wreck. And, American agriculture isn’t as invincible as we’d all like to believe.

Our government doesn’t want to talk about it, and our well-fed consumers don’t want to think about it. But as much as I hate being a bad news bearer, being informed is the first step to being prepared.

On Tuesday evening, a dairying friend from New York emailed me that their farm couldn’t find corn to buy – anywhere. Then this on Thursday from drought ground zero in Missouri: “Is there anyone out there that can help me find feed for my herd? I’m quickly running out and there’s no letup in this drought.”

We’re already rationing grain and forages to the highest bidder. Our fruit and vegetable industries in much of the country have taken several hits with late frosts and the ever-creeping drought. And water in our major transportation rivers is dropping toward the bottom of the dipstick.

Okay, after sweating through stifling heat at field days for much of this week, maybe I’m hallucinating and sensing mirages. That’s my disclaimer for what you’re about to read, and I’m sticking to it.  

Worst is yet to come

If you’re old enough, you might remember the drought of 1988 – which this year’s drought devastation has already surpassed in severity. That year, agricultural losses tallied more than $78 billion. But that year, corn futures peaked at just above $3.60 a bushel; soybeans edged above $10.50.

This week, shriveling yield prospects pushed corn futures above $8 a bushel; soybeans soared above $17. We’ve skyrocketed into a whole new age, baby!

Am I spooking you yet? In early 1989, I reported that canned fruit and vegetable inventories on grocery shelves across the country were shriveling. Bare shelves were stocked with signs to the effect: “Will be restocked soon.”

But it wasn’t a distribution problem. Food manufacturers simply ran out of product, and were scrambling to get their hands on winter production.

Dr. Bruce McPheron, dean of Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, is a national food policy expert. This week, he told me that the grocery distribution network operates with only a 4-day supply. That was a huge concern in New York City immediately after 9-11.

Entering a scarier period

Here are a few drought consequences likely to come home to roost for agriculture:

  • Dairy farmers will be forced to skinny-down the corn in their rations, reducing milk production.
  • Beef cow-calf producers will nix any plan for much-needed herd expansion, unless they buy cattle from those forced by drought to sell off herds.
  • Some ethanol plants are likely to shut down due to corn price rationing.
  • Congress, being prone to short-term thinking, is likely to be reactionary and do something stupid rather than something smart – like extending the disaster program (which expired last year).
  • If you’re blessed to live in a “garden spot” receiving adequate rainfall, consider new opportunities to grow food and forage crops that’ll be in huge demand this fall or early next year.

If there’s a bottom line to this message, it’s this: Before we bite into the “Agriculture can feed the world” idea, maybe we need to get a far better grip on being able to feed ourselves.

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