Trying to Recover from Last Year's Drought
Winter is coming. Or maybe it's here already. Either way, this winter season will play a critical role in defining crop production, food prices, and livestock health in the U.S and worldwide. 2012 marked the most severe drought in 25 years, and without a wet winter, the impact on our ecological systems and our wallets is set to grow.
The drought of 2012 expanded to two-thirds of the continental U.S. by the end of the year and cut production of our most fruitful crop, corn, by nearly 27 percent. Although we have had some snow over the last few weeks, the Corn Belt -- Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, eastern Nebraska, eastern Kansas, southern Minnesota and parts of Missouri -- has had little relief. According to the most recent information from the Drought Monitor, 77 percent of Nebraska remains in exceptional drought.
Climatologists say it would take 16 inches of precipitation to replenish the soil of the Corn Belt, much above the typical 12 inches farmers watch for. As the drought persisted last year, roots stretched 4 to 5 feet deeper than average, making heavy precipitation vital this winter.
February might provide some good news, as scientists are hoping to have a better indication of seasonal weather patterns such as El Niño or La Niña. El Niño, which brings wetter weather, could provide enough precipitation to help us through the drought, while La Niña, which we experienced last year, could be devastating. But, precipitation isn't the only factor. If temperatures remain below freezing, as they have been in the Corn Belt so far, moisture will continue to have a tough time penetrating soil and reaching thirsty roots.
What does this mean for food prices?
Damaged and destroyed crops, especially corn and soybeans, have already affected prices such as animal feed. Ending stocks for 2012/2013, which greatly affect animal feed production, were projected at 647 million bushels -- the lowest since 1995/1996. Most of the price increases will be passed along to retail food such as beef, poultry, pork and dairy in late 2013. Retail food prices have a historical inflation average of 2.5 to 3 percent but that is expected to rise to between 3 and 4 percent this year.
Whether the dramatic weather of 2012 will become an outlier or this is a sign of things to come, we are headed into a difficult 2013 for both our environment and our grocery bills unless mother nature can make it rain.