It was a bad year for corn. And about the tomatoes. And for many other American crops.
Farmers, agricultural economists and others taking stock of this summer’s growing season say drought conditions and extreme weather have destroyed many crops, fruits and vegetables, with the American Farm Bureau suggesting yields could to decrease by up to a third compared to last year.
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U.S. corn is on track to produce the lowest yield since the 2012 drought, according to analysts at Rabobank, which collects data on commodity markets. This year’s hard red winter wheat crop was the smallest since 1963, bank analysts said. In Texas, cotton farmers have walked away from nearly 70 percent of their crop because the crop is so small, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. California’s rice harvest is half of what it would be in a normal year, an industry group said.
The low yields are likely more than a one-year decline as climate change alters weather patterns in agriculturally important parts of the country, contributing to higher food prices that experts don’t see abating anytime soon.
Drought has consumed 40 percent of the country over the past 101 weeks, USDA meteorologist Brad Rippey said. But exactly where that 40% lies has shifted over time, meaning different areas of the country’s farmland have been affected at different times, spreading pain and hard choices geographically and by crop.
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“Spring wheat, durum wheat, barley [in the Northeast] – these were just minted in 2021. For some of these crops they were the lowest yields we’ve seen since the 1980s,” Rippey said. “The biggest impacts this year have been the Central and Southern Great Plains — Nebraska south through Texas — and the two big crops hit this year are sorghum [primarily used for animal feed] and cotton”.
Based on last month’s numbers, he said, it looks like cotton abandonment in Texas will be the highest on record, about 69 percent: “That’s when farmers just walk away.”
In California, farmers are making tough choices to give up their strawberries and tomatoes, lettuce and melons, so that whatever water they get goes to crops like almonds, grapes and olives, where they’ve sunk years of investment and the payoff she is better. Rippey said.
Even with the recent rains, much of the western United States is still facing a long-term drought, said Curtis Riganti, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center. “We’re seeing widespread extreme and exceptional drought in California’s Central Valley, parts of Nevada, central and southern Oregon, the central High Plains, southern Oklahoma and Texas,” he said. “And while we’ve seen a pretty active monsoon season this year in New Mexico, Arizona and southern Colorado, in terms of reservoir replenishment it’s not doing very well.”
Every August for the past 30 years, a group of agricultural experts and volunteer farmers in the Midwest jump in their cars and their entourage across seven states, a pitch to the USDA’s ongoing forecasts of annual crop yields.
The USDA lowered its corn forecast last month due to this summer’s drought. But the Pro Farmer Crop Tour, which ended Aug. 25, found that corn performance was even worse than that lowered expectation. Field inspectors also found that corn quality had suffered as a result of the heat and dry conditions, with ears bearing small kernels and many suffering from “upside down,” when kernels are missing from the outer edge.
Wheat has been in decline this year, with rains hampering spring planting after a prolonged La Niña weather pattern meant several years of warmer and drier weather in key production areas.
The drought is also having a dramatic effect on California rice, which is grown primarily in the Sacramento Valley. The state, which grows medium-grain rice such as sushi rice, has about half the production of a normal year, said Katie Cahill, a spokeswoman for the California Rice Commission. Many growers decided to fallow their fields and sell their water to perennial crops like almonds to cover their losses.
The federal government operates a system of dams, reservoirs and canals in California that the state relies on for agriculture and drinking water. Water utilities contract with the federal government for certain amounts of water each year. The federal government fulfills contracts based on how much water is available. This year, as the state’s extreme drought entered its third year, the government said it had no water to give to farmers.
Last summer was a disappointment for tomato growers, said Aaron Barcellos, partner at A-Bar Ag Enterprises in Firebaugh, Fresno County, Calif., “and we’re still in a worse water situation than last summer.”
“Even the river water has decreased. Other crops are competing for the same water, other crops that have better yields,” he said. On his own farm, he cut back from 2,000 acres of tomatoes in 2020 to 900 last year. This year he has only 530 acres of canned tomatoes.
“Some of that land has gone to garlic and Pima cotton, the rest has become fallow,” he said. Contracts with canneries are negotiated before the season starts, so an extremely difficult year leaves growers in a hole financially. “We have contracts and these prices are not sustainable now. Many growers are leaving the tomato industry because of the last several years,” said Barcellos.
The USDA recently estimated that this year’s tomato harvest will be 10.5 million tons, more than a million tons against a normal season, which will be reflected in the prices of pizza, spaghetti sauce and ketchup next year.
Harvesting of the new potato crop is underway and Rabobank analysts report that the harvest is forecast to be down 4% from last year (and last year’s crop was the lowest in a decade). Analysts also told her that year-to-date shipments of carrots were down 45%, sweet corn down 20%, sweet potatoes down 13% and celery down 11%, all indicating shortages. And according to the USDA, total peach production is down 15% from 2021, largely due to California’s small crop.
One bright spot is soy. Gro Intelligence modeling put a total soybean forecast at 4.30 billion bushels, lower than the USDA’s 4.53 billion bushels, but slightly higher than last year.
But the bad news extends to cattle as well, portending bad news for beef prices next year. When the weather is dry and hot, there is not enough natural food to go around. To maintain a herd, ranchers have to bring in hay and feed prices are skyrocketing, prompting ranchers to sell their animals a little early and often to sell heifers, the young females, rather than keep them as breeding stock, he said. Sarah Little, spokeswoman for the North American Meat Institute, a trade association. This has resulted in lower beef prices for consumers in the short term, but signals that supply will likely be tighter next year.
A recent Farm Bureau survey found that the largest herd decline is in Texas (a 50% decline reported), followed by New Mexico (down 43%) and Oregon (down 41%), largely due to scarce forage and of water, which reduces in operation income for farmers.
“Producers are being hit especially hard because the cost of feed, fuel and fertilizer has gone up, so even though they have record prices for cattle, inflation has hurt their income,” Little said.
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