The summer drought's hefty toll on American crops

It was a bad year for corn. And for 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 wreaked havoc on many row crops, fruits and vegetables, with the American Farm Bureau Federation suggesting yields could be down by as much as a third compared with last year.

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American corn is on track to produce its lowest yield since the drought of 2012, according to analysts at Rabobank, which collects data about commodity markets. This year's hard red winter wheat crop was the smallest since 1963, the bank's analysts said. In Texas, cotton farmers have walked away from nearly 70% of their crop because the harvest is so paltry, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The California rice harvest is half what it would be in a normal year, an industry group said.

The poor yields are likely more than a one-year blip, as climate change alters weather patterns in agriculturally important parts of the country, contributing to higher food prices that experts don't see ebbing any time soon.

Drought has consumed 40% of the country for the past 101 weeks, USDA meteorologist Brad Rippey said. But precisely where that 40% is has shifted over time, meaning different swaths of the country's agricultural land have been affected at different times, spreading pain and difficult choices geographically and by crop.

"Spring wheat, durum wheat, barley [in the Northeast] - those were just hammered in 2021. For some of those crops it was 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 southward through Texas - and the two big crops hit this year are grain sorghum [primarily used for animal feed] and cotton."

Based on last month's numbers, he said, it looks like abandonment of the Texas cotton crop will be the highest on record, around 69%: "That's when farmers just walk away."

In California, farmers are making tough choices to give up on their strawberries and tomatoes, lettuces and melons, so that whatever water they get goes to crops like almonds, grapes and olives, where they've sunk multiyear investments and the payoff is better, Rippey said.

Even with recent rains, a lot of the western United States is still looking at 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 over New Mexico, Arizona and southern Colorado, in terms of refilling reservoirs it doesn't do a ton of good."

Every August for the past 30 years, a group of agricultural experts and volunteer farmers in the Midwest hop in their cars and convoy across seven states, a boots-on-the-ground backstop for the USDA's ongoing predictions about annual crop yields.

The USDA had reduced its corn forecast last month because of this summer's drought. But the Pro Farmer Crop Tour, which concluded Aug. 25, found the corn yield was even worse than that lowered expectation. The on-the-ground inspectors also found the corn quality had suffered as a result of heat and dry conditions, with cobs carrying small grains and many suffering from "tipback," when kernels are missing from the outer edge.

Wheat has taken a walloping this year, with rains impeding spring planting after a protracted La Niña weather pattern meant several years of hotter and drier weather over key production areas.

Drought is also having a dramatic effect on California rice, which is grown mostly in the Sacramento Valley. The state, which grows medium grain rice like sushi rice, is at about half of a normal year's production, said Katie Cahill, spokeswoman for the California Rice Commission. Many growers decided to fallow their fields and sell their water to perennial crops like almonds to defray 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 agencies contract with the federal government for certain amounts of water each year. The federal government fulfills the contracts based on how much water is available. This year, as the state's megadrought dragged into its third year, the government said it had no water to give farmers.

Last summer was a disappointment for tomato growers, said Aaron Barcellos, partner at A-Bar Ag Enterprises in Firebaugh, in Fresno County, Calif., "and we're still in a worse water situation than last summer."

"Even the river water has been cut back. Other crops are competing for that same water, other crops that have better returns," he said. On his own farm, he has cut back from 2,000 acres of tomatoes in 2020 to 900 last year. This year he has only 530 acres of canning tomatoes.

"Some of that land has gone to garlic and Pima cotton, the rest of it has gone fallow," he said. Contracts with canners are negotiated before the season starts, so an exceptionally tough year leaves growers in a hole financially. "We have contracts and those prices aren't viable now. A lot of growers are leaving the tomato industry because of the past several years," Barcellos said.

The USDA recently estimated that the tomato harvest this year will be 10.5 million tons, more than a million tons shy of a normal season, which will be reflected in the next year's pizza, spaghetti sauce and ketchup prices.

Harvest of the new potato crop is underway and Rabobank analysts say the harvested area is projected to drop 4% from last year (and last year's crop was a decade's low). Its analysts also said year-to-date shipments of carrots are down 45%, sweet corn down 20%, sweet potatoes down 13%, and celery down 11%, all an indication of short supply. And according to the USDA, total peach production was down 15% from 2021, mostly because of California's small crop.

One bright spot is soybeans. Gro Intelligence's 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, portending bad news for next year's beef prices. When weather is dry and hot, there's not enough natural feed to go around. To sustain a herd, ranchers must bring in hay, and feed prices soar, prompting ranchers to sell their animals a little early, and often to sell heifers, the young females, rather than keep them as breeding stock, said Sarah Little, spokeswoman for the North American Meat Institute, a trade association. This has resulted in lower beef prices to consumers in the short term, but signals that there will likely be a tighter supply next year.

A recent Farm Bureau survey found that the largest herd decline is in Texas (reported down 50%), followed by New Mexico (down 43%) and Oregon (down 41%), largely due to scarce forage and water, which cuts into operational income for ranchers.

"Producers are especially hard hit because food, fuel and fertilizer costs have been rising, so although they are getting record prices for cattle, inflation has hurt their income," Little said.

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