The Drought and American Families: How It Will Affect You at the Supermarket

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While the media has barely uttered the D-word since fall, Mother Nature hasn’t spontaneously healed the Midwest. The Drought of 2012 has run over into 2013 and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's most recent explanation--that the staggeringly dry conditions were the unforeseeable combination of two key periods during which the region simply lacked rainfall--has done little to ease the fears of many whom are hardest hit. Meanwhile, observant onlookers are noticing an uncanny resemblance to the conditions we saw during the early stages of the 1930s Dust Bowl. While conflicting reports are par for the course when it comes to weather predictions, t’s difficult not to have images of raging dust storms and underfed families trudging through our heads.

The good news is that even if the weather services that are foreboding another hot and dry year are those whose predictions hold true, we’re unlikely to see images akin to the last Dust Bowl anywhere outside of weather maps and drought indices. Modern farming practices have reduced the number of acres of tilled land and the depth at which tilling takes place when it is used, one of the major agricultural practices that lead to the Dirty '30s. At the same time, irrigation and biotechnologies offer farmers more tools for dealing with the drought than they had even as recently as 5 years ago, let alone 80. This isn’t to say another drought year would be welcome, but even one of the proportions we saw during the Dust Bowl would not create the same conditions in America’s fields.

Unfortunately, her supermarkets are another story. Here’s what the average family can expect at the grocery store if 2013 proves to be another drought year:

Drought in 2012
Image: Jiang Xintong/Xinhua/

Big beef prices. If you think beef prices are high now, you haven’t seen anything yet. The U.S. cattle herd is the smallest it has been in generations. While some ranchers have been able to maintain their herds with cutting-edge pasture management technology, good luck, or sheer cussedness, they are few and far between. Another drought year will result in further cuts to herd numbers. Small herds produce less beef, less beef means less supply for the same hungry American demand, and we all know what happens when demand outpaces supply: higher prices.

More expensive dairy. Like the beef herd, dairy herds are extremely dependent on good rainfall. Dairy farmers will cut more cattle as feed prices tighten resulting in the same supply to demand ratio change we see in the beef industry. Milk may not be quite akin to liquid white gold, but it’ll be close. Because the reproductive cycles of cattle are longer and produce fewer offspring than other types of livestock the dairy and beef industries will also take longer to bounce back.


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