Opinion: the dual drought grip on U.S. agriculture

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Opinion: the dual drought grip on U.S. agriculture

By Greenscans co-founder and BerryBroad Juanita Gaglio

It has been a summer that both farmers and consumers will not forget, with two droughts very different in nature that have been affecting retail prices. We view news images of scorching farmland and cattle suffering, due to a prolonged period of no rain with record-breaking high temperatures adversely affecting 55% of the U.S. To make matters worse, on another front we are facing a labor drought due to a shortage of legally available agricultural workers.

Prolonged dry spell in Midwest and Southeast

More than half of all U.S counties have been designated disaster zones by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Not since the 1956 drought has such a large geographic area (55%) of the country been impacted. The historic Dust Bowl era is well known with a drought that covered 58% of the U.S. in that year.  The situation affecting farmers, their livestock and crops, and even the flow of the Mississippi River, is as heartbreaking today as it was back then.

At the turn of the century, settlers arrived to farm the rich land of the Southern Plain states that yielded both great harvests and profits. Iowa-based Three Rivers Ag Consulting owner Frank Moore, who is also a corn and soybean farmer, explains that this geographical area of the U.S has historically experienced an 18-year drought cycle for the last 17 years.

"In contrast to the past drought conditions, this has been the longest period, twenty-four years, that the area has gone through without a drought occurring," he tells www.freshfruitportal.com.

Lessons from the past have vastly improved farm practices with better soil conservation and modern hybrid seeds that are resistant to drought conditions two to three years away, yet the main concern today is the pernicious extended dry spell.

"The drought actually began in November and has been characterized by lots of geographical variability. There was a lot of variability even in the same field," adds Dan Towery of Ag Conservation Solutions in Lafayette, Indiana.

"The drought affected pockets of corn and soybean crops with corn hit the worst due to the crops requirements for more water.  With corn in such wide demand from feeding cattle and in materials, many people are suffering and are going to see it in increased prices."

He says corn crops were very short on moisture when 100°F (37.8°C) plus temperatures arrived, greatly affecting pollination or causing corn kernels to abort. However, he clarifies there are still pockets of farms with decent crops and areas with 50% yields, while some soybean farms have fared all right.

Photo: Frank Moore

"Soybean yields may still be halfway decent although in some areas the soybeans burned up back in July."

Generational farmers are commenting that they have never seen weather like this before. What makes this dry spell different and of concern is that climatologist have labeled it a "flash drought" because in contrast to what happened in 1956, it did not develop over multiple seasons or years, but in a matter of months and is still unfolding.

With no end in sight, topsoil has turned dry while "crops, pasture and rangeland have deteriorated at a rate rarely seen in the last 18 years", according to the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) based in Asheville, North Carolina.

What was expected to be a boom year for corn farmers sowing 96.4 million acres - the most since 1937 - has now given way to tremendous uncertainty with 38% of the corn crop described as labeled in poor or very poor condition by the USDA, with 57% of pastures and range land graded very poor to poor.

California - San Joaquin Valley experiences a different "Grapes of Wrath"

The famous novel "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck came out of the Dust Bowl period; a story of one of many families migrating to California's farming fields. It is estimated that during this time about 300,000-400,000 people moved to California with a certain percentage relocating to farm labor camps.

Fast forward decades later, a similar climatic situation exists in the Plain states with a political impasse in California leaving crops to rot in fields due to lack of immigrant labor. According to the Immigration Compliance Group, "an estimated 75% of California's agricultural workforce is foreign-born, primarily in Mexico and about half the workers are believed to be unauthorized". A political compromise has yet to be found between the government's mandated E-Verify and the proposed guest worker program, and it is our nation's agricultural industry that suffers as a result.

The problem extends much further than California, from the apple fields in Washington to the orange farms of Florida and fruit orchards in between. It seems the government is in crackdown mode with the election year, meaning fewer farmers are willing to risk taking in illegal workers.

We're talking about a political football without any touchdown in sight, and the game has gone nowhere under both parties dating back to the Bush Jnr administration. It's no secret that most farmers are Republicans but somehow the party has done little to resolve this issue, while Obama hasn't helped the situation with more restrictions now than before.

It seems like common sense to me that one of our country's biggest industries could support itself with legal labor. Sound idealistic? Well it shouldn't be. Our nation is built on the free market ideal, so it shouldn't be that half our agricultural workers are unauthorized. There must be a way to 'legalize' them so that our economy and labor markets can flow more freely. They're doing the job anyway, supporting the economy and our exports.

The idea of 'legalizing' does not even mean making these workers residents or citizens, but giving them the dignity of being authorized, rather than hiding away from authorities to make a living. A change in this policy to a more dynamic guest worker scheme would improve the welfare of 'illegals' who could no longer be labeled this way, as well as the farmers who employ them; not to mention there would be less fruit left to rot on our farms. An election year should not be the excuse for labor problems, but the trigger for immigrant worker reform.

Getting our own people to work?

The other question is whether we could get more U.S. citizens working on our farms. It has been a difficult task in the past, but you have to keep in mind that our unemployment rate hit 8.3% in July, and that doesn't include people who have given up looking. I was shocked to see Americans picking fruit as guest workers in Tasmania on a trip to Australia last year, and when I told that to people here in California they were surprised too. Here we are with a shortage of farm labor and our own citizens are on the other side of the Pacific Ocean harvesting asparagus.

If our young people are willing to go as far away as Tasmania to pick fruit, why can't we get them to move across our own country? It probably has to do with a mix of cultural experience and the wages they pay to work on farms in Australia, at more than US$20 an hour. I'm pretty sure most farm owners would laugh off the idea of paying such an exorbitant rate, but the reality is that most developed countries pay their farmhands more than we do, and they still manage to compete. Every season we still buy fruit from places like Australia, New Zealand and the European Union.

Is it really unimaginable that young unemployed Americans would be willing to travel across the country for the cultural experience of working on a farm, perhaps with a slightly higher wage? Maybe they wouldn't be willing to do it, or maybe it hasn't been promoted. I would be interested to know if it has. Could the government provide assistance to help push up the wage and attract workers? After all our taxes go towards billions of dollars worth of crop insurance subsidies ever year.

If we don't find some kind of solution to this labor problem it will ultimately mean less production here and more imports from abroad.

Photo: Frank Moore

Affects of both droughts on farmers, consumers and importers

Both droughts could have dire consequences on the anemic U.S economy both in lost income to farmers and higher retail food prices to consumers. The U.S is the world’s largest grower and exporter of corn, government figures show, the crop valued at $76.5 billion in 2011 followed by soybeans, hay and wheat.

Furthermore, investors and insurance analysts are raising questions over the farmland boom's sustainability. Insurance payments are beginning to play a bigger role in supporting the farmer and land prices. In the case of the California labor drought, California crops will continue to be at peril without people to work the harvest and, furthermore, according to California Senator Diane Feinstein, at least 84,155 production acres and 22,285 jobs have moved to Mexico.

In the case of corn, the question is who will benefit or suffer; the consumer, cattle or the refinery? The consumer will have sticker shock as corn can be found in everything from whiskey to high fructose syrup to ethanol. High corn prices will affect where the corn goes first; to feed cattle or to refineries for ethanol. Calls to waive the ethanol mandate are growing and livestock feed is being rationed. One thing is certain, with the lack of corn and soybeans to fulfill contracts, Argentina and Brazil will benefit in shipping these crops to North America companies.

Although consumers will not see immediate price hikes at the supermarket, the government forecasts that food prices will rise by about 3.4-4.5%. The USDA estimates that a whole chicken costing US$4.50 in 2011 will cost closer to US$5 next year. A typical family food budget could increase to US$250-300 within 10-12 months on basic items; beef, poultry and dairy products, according to the USDA Economic Research Service.

The jury is still out on the financial blow to crops and livestock, with some analysts raising concerns that this drought could turn into the type of multilayered event that damaged the farm belt in the 1950s and  before that during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Could this be the resurrection of the 1930s "Last Man's Club"?

During the bleak Dust Bowl days, John McCarty, editor of the Dalhart Texan created The Last Man's Club, designed to promote a spirit of courage. Judge Cowen recalls the pledge members had to sign: "In the absence of an act of God, serious family injury, or some other emergency, I pledge to stay here as the last man and to do everything I can to help other last men remain in this country. We promise to stay here 'till hell freezes over and skate out on the ice".

The Midwest drought will be easier to make a comeback with heartier crop cover and hybrid seeds to withstand intense heat, but on the other side of the country, the California labor drought will not be as easy to ameliorate. Politics does not blow like the winds of nature, there will be further debate and I daresay that the Midwest will make a comeback before the immigrant workers return to work the "Grapes of Wrath" in California.


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