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So - corn can't set kernels, grain prices are rising, and ranchers are forced to sell their herds early. All on account of drought & heat.

Dig the face of climate change.

This diary pulls from a few recent articles from the New Yorker, the Times Herald-Record, and NYT. (Do read them in full if you have time.)

Across the country the widespread drought and heat are kicking US agriculture. In Illinois it's corn (New Yorker):

It is now corn-sex season across the Midwest, and everything is not going well. High commodity prices spurred farmers to sow more acres this year, and unseasonable warmth in March prompted many to plant corn early. Just a few months ago, the United States Department of Agriculture was projecting a record corn crop of 14.79 billion bushels. But then, in June and July, came broilingly high temperatures, combined with a persistent drought across much of the midsection of the country.

You couldn’t choreograph worse weather conditions for pollination,” Fred Below, a crop biologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told Bloomberg News recently. “It’s like farming in Hell."

The upshot is a spike in grain prices - Corn futures have risen from $5.10 to $7.40 in the past month and a half (Times Herald-Record):
Ears of corn in the Midwest are curling up and shutting down in the broiling afternoon sun, a disastrous scenario that could set the stage for higher food prices.

Historic heat and drought are destroying crops and sending agricultural commodity prices through the roof, with the cost of a bushel of corn in the December contract increasing 45 percent since the beginning of June. Wheat and soybean prices have jumped as well.

"People sense a shortage and the price gets bid up," said Gail Martell of Martell Crop Projections, which provides crop and weather analysis. "Someone needs corn, and they pay through the teeth."

A U.S. Department of Agriculture report released last week anticipates lower yields from the country's Corn Belt due to heat and drought. One-third of the crop has been graded by farmers as either "poor" or "very poor," Martell said.

Most of the corn in affected areas is made into ethanol or fed to animals The Times Herald-Record report quoted above predicts that prices for meat (chicken, pork, beef) will rise within the next few months as a result of the current spike in grain.

Another dynamic affecting beef prices is ranchers having to downsize their herds on the high plains, similar to last year in Texas (New York Times):

Ranchers say they are reducing their herds and selling their cattle months ahead of schedule to avoid the mounting losses of a drought that now stretches across a record-breaking 1,016 American counties. Irrigation ponds are shriveling to scummy puddles. Their pastures are brown and barren. And they say the prices of hay and other feed are soaring beyond their reach.

“If we’re running out of grass and we’re not growing enough feed crops to feed them the other six months of the year, what do you do?” asked R. Scott Barrows, director of Kansas State University’s Golden Prairie District extension office. “You liquidate.”

The situation is tough on ranchers forced to sell in "drought sales" in places like Torrington, Wyoming:
“We’ve just been sitting here crying,” said a sixth-generation rancher named Mae Ann Manning, as she and a few friends sat in the cafeteria and waited for the day’s bidding to start. She was half joking. But half not. “We don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Ms. Manning and her daughter Debbie Murray came to sell 160 year-old steers [ed.: 160 steers that are one year old - c'mon, NYT!]. There had been little winter snow to moisten the ground at their ranches near Lost Springs, and the spring was hot and dry. A wildfire burned three of their pastures. Now, with the summer sun frying what little grass remained and hay selling for $200 a ton, they decided to winnow the herd.

About one month ago, USDA predicted (pdf!) forecast a drop in US beef production - from 26,199 million pounds in 2011 to 25,088 in 2012 and 24,575 in 2013. One would expect the severity of the drop to increase in more up-to-date forecasts, and even moreso as drought deepens.

I'm not a supporter of the US agricultural model, devoting much of our best farmland to feed grains only to run them through animals sold for meat. But even so, you have to wonder if we're standing on the edge of a new era, when the middle of our country won't be able to produce so much food due to changing climate. We have a lot of margin to increase efficiency, since feeding animals and burning ethanol for fuel are both inherently wasteful. But still ....

And then there's this from the New Yorker article:

Along with the heat and the drought and the super derecho, the country this summer is also enduring a Presidential campaign. So far, the words “climate change” have barely been uttered. This is not an oversight. Both President Obama and Mitt Romney have chosen to remain silent on the issue, presumably because they see it as just too big a bummer.

And so, while farmers wait for rain and this season’s corn crop withers on the stalk, the familiar disconnect continues. There’s no discussion of what could be done to avert the worst effects of climate change, even as the insanity of doing nothing becomes increasingly obvious.

Originally posted to mightymouse on Mon Jul 16, 2012 at 08:28 PM PDT.

Also republished by Climate Hawks and DK GreenRoots.


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