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.