by Katie Valentine and Whitney Allen
Thanksgiving is a time of plenty – or, maybe more accurately, of vast over-consumption — from the meal to the midnight shopping rampage afterward.
But across the United States this year, “plenty” has not been enjoyed by many farmers. A historic drought devastated crops over the summer, causing a spike in grain prices that led to farmers slaughtering cows early, selling their herds or feeding them candy as a cheap alternative to corn.
This year’s historic drought is still having an impact as we move into the holidays. In most cases the influence on food prices has been very modest — with only very slight increases in food products. But for those buying in bulk, the price increases have become a greater factor. For example, government purchases through the Emergency Food Assistance Program have dropped by half, from $723 million three years ago to $352 million. And that is putting pressure on food banks that rely on donations from these programs to keep their shelves full.
The drought, which at one point covered nearly 80 percent of the contiguous U.S. this summer, is now working its way through products in the grocery store. Here are some ways your Thanksgiving is influenced by this year’s severe drought — an event that Midwestern scientists say is “consistent with an observed warmer climate.”
Wheat: This summer’s drought decimated wheat crops in the U.S. and Russia, and this winter’s crop isn’t faring much better. As drought continues in much of the Great Plains region, winter wheat quality has declined for the past three weeks – as of November 19, only 34 percent of the crop was rated good or excellent by the USDA, and about 24 percent was in poor or very poor condition. This has caused the price of wheat in the U.S. to spike from $266.32 per ton in April 2012 to $358.20 in October. The increase in price won’t likely put a damper on your Thanksgiving shopping – the price of rolls increased only 3 cents since last year – but the poor wheat crop coupled with failures in other grain harvests has run the U.S. grain stockpiles to historically low levels, which could spell trouble for future Thanksgivings.
Turkey: The drought-induced increase in wheat and corn prices has driven turkey prices up too – though marginally. The average cost of a 16-pound turkey will be about $22.23 this year – a total increase of 66 cents from 2011. The increase may not mean much for consumers buying a single turkey for dinner, but it may be influencing their desire to donate turkeys to others. Several charities have reported being short the number of turkeys they want to serve needy families this year. Turkey prices are expected to remain higher through at least 2013.