California drought points to next food-price shock

Monday, April 14, 2014
By Paul Martin

Sunday, 04.13.14

Drought in the United States, past and present, might make 2014 one of the more volatile years for food prices and supplies globally. U.S. consumers may get a preview of what’s coming at the salad bar.

The main culprit is the parched land of California’s Central Valley, which grows a large share of U.S. vegetables, fruits and nuts. Conditions are so dry that some farmers aren’t even bothering to plant. That might have even bigger implications for food prices than the 2012 drought that baked the Corn Belt, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said this week.

California has suffered a double hit: a dearth of rain in the lowlands and a lack of snow in the mountains in the north and east. Snowmelt provides water for many of the state’s farmers during the growing season and for the huge population centers in the south. Snow this year was only about 30 percent of the historical average. Even though the snow now is melting, some streams and rivers have so little water that wildlife crews have had to truck stranded salmon fingerlings downstream so they can make it out to sea.

The harshest winter weather in more than three decades in the Midwest and Northeast also will send shock waves through the food chain, according to the Wall Street Journal. Kansas’s winter wheat crop took a beating as did vineyards for producing wine grapes in New York’s Finger Lakes region.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture had projected a 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent rise in the price of fresh fruits and vegetables this year. That estimate, however, was made before the full extent of the damage from the winter weather and California’s drought could be assessed.

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