Eight Ways The Drought Is Influencing Thanksgiving

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.

Soybeans: The staple ingredient of many a vegetarian-friendly Thanksgiving has had a harrowing year. As of August, drought had affected 85 percent of U.S. soybean crops, and the USDA estimates the low yield will increase the price of soybeans from $394 per ton in 2011/2012 to $455-$485 per ton in 2012/2013. The good news is any price increases likely won’t have a major impact on consumers this Thanksgiving: you can still buy a 26 oz. Tofurky for $9.99.

Cranberries: Your cranberry sauce, aluminum-can-ridges and all, won’t likely see a see a rise in prices yet. But that’s only because farmers are doing more to get them to your plate. Mike Moss, a grower in Wisconsin, said of the drought: “It’s made more work to bring the crop through. We had to protect it earlier, we had to sprinkle more throughout the summer.” With the lack of rain, farmers have had to rely more and more on their irrigation systems, which will further strap water resources if the drought persists.

Corn: Corn took a big cut this season, with about 87 percent of the crop affected by the drought. The USDA estimates that corn supplies for the 2012/2013 marketing year will be about 13 percent below the 2011/12 marketing year supplies, and that corn prices for a supply range like this would likely be at record highs in nominal terms. Corn in some form is found in about 75 percent of food at the supermarket, and since it’s a major feed crop, an increase in corn prices – like the 60 percent spike seen early this summer – will mean an increase in egg, meat and milk prices in the months ahead.

Apples and Pumpkins: The key ingredients in your traditional Thanksgiving Day desserts have seen mixed success this growing season. Apple growers in the Midwest have seen early frosts combine with the drought to cause a much shorter growing season for the year. In central Ohio, the apple crop fared well despite the drought, and it was a historically warm March followed by an April freeze – rather than drought – that damaged crops in New York and Michigan. Pumpkins, on the other hand, have proven to be a drought-tolerant crop, and for the most part had a successful growing season.

Warming up leftovers: With all the prep work that goes into making a Thanksgiving meal, it’s usually comforting to know that you can just throw whatever is left in the oven and live off of it until December. But the drought may mean you are spending more every time you set the dial to “preheat.” Using fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas for energy requires a great deal of water, and conflicts between water use for human consumption and energy production are taking place across the nation. The US Energy Information Association warns the water shortage could drive up prices on everything from food to fuel.

Christmas Trees: Yep, the drought is running into the Christmas holiday too. This summer’s drought and heat killed many Christmas tree growers’ youngest trees – which means this year’s crop of chop-ready trees won’t be affected, but the crop six to 10 years from now might.  Growers in Wisconsin and Michigan have lost about 4,000 young trees – about half of their new crop. One Illinois farmer called this year’s loss of young trees the worst he’s seen in 55 years, with almost all of the several thousand trees he planted in the last two years dead from lack of water. Most farmers said the death of trees wouldn’t reflect in Christmas tree prices this year, but the loss has left some farmers saying they won’t replant next year.

Katie Valentine and Whitney Allen are interns on the energy policy team at the Center for American Progress. Climate Progress Deputy Editor Stephen Lacey contributed to this piece.

3 Responses to Eight Ways The Drought Is Influencing Thanksgiving

  1. prokaryotes says:

    When i read about feeding candy to cow i thought of this “trend”

    Turf Painting Spreads As Drought Ravages Lawns

  2. Paul Klinkman says:

    The Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts with no houses, with not much food and with winter coming on. Half of them died the first winter. Next spring, a Europe-wise Indian named Squanto showed them how to plant the local crop, corn. The Pilgrims threw a feast of thanks for their Indian saviors next November.

    I give thanks that in the year 1900, humanity as a whole (including primitive societies) had perhaps twice as much food and shelter as they needed to survive, and so life was better.

    I give thanks that by 1950, humanity as a whole had the ability to produce perhaps ten times as much food and shelter as they needed to survive.

    I give thanks that by the year 2012, humanity as a whole has the ability to produce hundreds of times as much food and shelter as each of us needs to survive. In addition, we have millions of engineers looking for good work to do for the betterment of humanity.

    I also see that we all have so much excess wealth that all of Europe has declared a permanent peace among its nations. Germany hasn’t made war upon France or Britain in my lifetime, breaking a 1000 year trend. Nor do I suspect that Germany will fight a war in the next 20 years at least, and perhaps not in the next 100 years.

    Now we must go forward. Henceforth, the Scrooge-like hoarding of sheer material wealth must be seen as one individual’s mental illness, like a lonely pensioner’s stacking of bric-a-brac in his or her home until there’s no room for the owner. The world of scarcity must be turned upon its head.

    The world of squeezing the last ounce of labor out of a Chinese political prisoner for the benefit of anonymous stockholders, of torturing and injuring people in any way for pennies, must be proscribed. We must no longer buy the bottom line lowest price cereal. We must buy from the company that benefits us by not putting GMOs in their cereal. We must buy from the good corporate actors. We must buy products that, in our transparent shopping, earn us respect all around.

    We are called as one world people to release millions of engineers to a new task, and we are called to engage a part of our collective vast technological wealth, for the preservation of the earth’s ecology. We must inhibit and then reverse climate change, and we must mitigate the effects of climate change in the meantime. The blessing is that we have all of the tools, all of the food and all of the inventors to go forward quickly — if they only knew.

    Perhaps you have already loaded up on cash and things, fearing a great hunger that can only happen in this rich world if we fight each other to death. Please live your own life in a way that lets us grow together, that doesn’t alienate you from the rest of us. Live a life such that your children will respect your good name.

  3. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘Let them eat dust’. ‘Apres moi, le deluge et le desert’.