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Wayne Independent - Honesdale, PA
  • Drought has regional impact

  • Saying the weather this year has been unpredictable is an understatement.
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  • GateHouse Media
    Saying the weather this year has been unpredictable is an understatement.
    Across the nation, states have experienced everything from mild winters to record rainfalls, drought to high temperatures.
    Locally, the year began with a mild winter followed by record-high temperatures in March, causing many crops to bloom early.
    This winter was an "anomaly," said Jessica Rennells, a climatologist for the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science and the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University.
    "A La Niña winter and Arctic oscillation acted to keep cold air north and away from the area," Rennells said. "We had such little snowfall last year—that's really rare for the northeast."
    This was good for municipalities that didn't have to spend as much on snowplowing and road salt, but devastating for crops such as apples, especially when temperatures then dropped in April exposing blooms to frost.
    Into the spring and summer, higher-than-average temperatures and extremely dry conditions left lawns brown and many local farmers with smaller crop yields.
    "Lack of snowfall didn't help the situation, as there was no snowpack melt in the spring to keep the ground moist," Rennells said.
    The first seven months of the year hit record-warm temperatures, making it the warmest 12-month period the nation has experienced since record keeping began in 1895, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
    Along with the heat, many areas of the U.S. experienced drier-than-average conditions, causing drought and wildfires in the west and mid-west.
    Other areas, such as the western Gulf Coast through the Ohio Valley, experienced record-setting moisture, including West Virginia, which had its tenth wettest July, according to the NOAA,
    Portions of the U.S. are still experiencing the most severe and extensive drought in at least the past 25 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Services.
    Some are even referring to it as the "modern day Dustbowl."
    The full extent of the weather has yet to be seen, with the potential to impact the cost and availability of food and even gasoline prices.
    Page 2 of 7 - Farming impacts
    This season has had its up and downs for Mike Cosgrove, owner of Spring Grove Farm, a dairy farm in Clinton.
    Cosgrove's hay crop was hit hard by the dry weather. "We're not going to have the quantity of hay that we have most years," he said, though he said he should have enough to feed the cows. "Some years I have a little excess hay and I may sell it, but this year I'm not going to have any excess to sell," Cosgrove said.
    His corn yield looks to be good, he said. "You don't know until you start harvesting."
    Field crops hit the worst by the dry weather include corn, soybeans, sorghum and hay. For example, 2012 corn production is estimated at 10.8 billion bushels, down from 12.4 in 2011, despite an increase in planting, according to the Economic Research Services.
    Unlike Cosgrove, local farmers who won't have enough feed to last them through the winter will have to purchase feed—the cost of which is rising, said Jeff Miller, an educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County.
    "Farmers are left with few options: cut back on rations or cull the herd," Miller said. "Both can have long-term effects: cutting back on the amount of feed can lower milk production, and thinning the herd eliminates that cow for milk production next year."
    "Having less grass for grazing may decrease production levels further," said Brian Riordon, an economist with the Northeast Milk Market Administrator.
    "While the national dairy industry may be hard hit, driving up the cost of dairy products, it could be good news for local dairy farmers who may receive more money for their milk," Miller said.
    "Nationally, milk production slowed in July, but still showed a growth of 0.7 percent over production last year," said Jennifer Huson, director of communications for Dairy Marketing Services.
    She said that the real impacts of the drought will start to be seen in August's production report, which comes out next week.
    "Right now we're watching it closely," Huson said. "It's a day-to-day thing where you're working to make sure that you're receiving all the milk that you can to supply all those contracts."
    Page 3 of 7 - Contracts include those to Greek yogurt manufacturers, such as the Chenango County-based Agro Farma Inc., parent company of Chobani yogurt.
    Jump-start then a freeze
    The mild winter and warm spell in March jump-started the growing season of produce such as apples, cherries, blueberries and strawberries.
    Once the flowers start to bloom, however, they have the potential to be damaged by frost potentially decreasing the amount of fruit produced.
    Locally some farms were able to shield their crops from damage by the cold that hit them after first blooms arrived. Others were not as lucky.
    George Joseph, owner of North Start Orchards in Westmoreland, lost more than 50 percent of his apple crop this year.
    This is a problem because he not only sells the fruit, but also byproducts such as apple cider.
    "It adds an additional cost because we're just going to have to buy apples for cider," Joseph said.
    Luckily, his blueberry and grape crops were "outstanding."
    "We're going to play on our strengths," Joseph said, adding that the orchard will have you-pick grapes this year. "We'll get through the rest."
    The state apple crop is down 54 percent this year, with a 15 percent decrease in production in Oneida County, according to the New York Apple Association.
    "Blueberries had a phenomenal year after using stored up energy from the poor 2011 season when rain washed away the flowers causing less fruit," said Jeff Miller, an educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension.
    "That's part of the interesting thing about farming—sometimes when one crop is hit hard, another does well."
    The grape harvest has also been exceptional and this should be an "excellent vintage" for New York wines, said Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. Growers were minimally affected by the spring frost, with the exception of the far western Lake Erie region, he said.
    "Steady rain came at the right time in July and warm weather hastened ripening, making the harvest season two to three weeks ahead of normal," he said.
    Page 4 of 7 - "Local pumpkins are also ahead of schedule, starting to turn orange in August," Miller said. "This could be a problem come October, as the majority of New York's pumpkin crop is sold for ornamental use for Halloween."
    The leaves also began turning earlier, beginning the leaf-peeping tourism season in New York State about two weeks ahead of schedule.
    "Some leaves were so dry they turned brown rather than the normal colors of autumn. Damage to the leaves is potentially hazardous for the trees, and could cause a problem for maple syrup season come spring," said Karl Niklas, a professor of plant biology at Cornell University.
    Rising fuel
    Lack of corn from droughts in the Midwest has already contributed to the rising cost of fuel, and may continue to do so through the next few months.
    In the Utica-Rome area, a regular gallon of gasoline cost $4.11 per gallon Monday, up about 22 cents from a month ago and about 30 cents from $3.89 per gallon at this time last year.
    "Nationally the retail cost of gasoline rose about 40 cents per gallon from the beginning of July to mid-August, about three to four cents of which is directly attributed to the rising cost of ethanol," said AAA Spokesman Michael Green.
    "Due to the drought, ethanol facilities have had to temporarily stop production all together or ship corn in from other areas. The cost of transportation contributes to the increase in price," Green said.
    The increase in ethanol prices combined with rises in crude oil prices and refinery and pipeline problems in the Midwest, a refinery fire in California and shutdown of oil production due to Hurricane Isaac have caused the cost of fuel to rise significantly.
    "The spot wholesale price of ethanol in the Chicago market was about $2.62 per gallon as of Aug. 21," Green said. "The majority of gas stations use E10 gasoline, which is comprised of about 10 percent ethanol. Every 10 cent change in the price per gallon of ethanol roughly results in a one cent change in the cost per gallon of gasoline.
    The national average per gallon as of Aug. 21 was $3.72 per regular gallon—the highest price on record for that day in history. Last year the price of ethanol also went up in the summer, but this is the most severe corn market we've seen in some time. The full effects of the drought on the price of ethanol may not be known for the next month or two."
    Page 5 of 7 - Rising food costs
    Filling your stomach may mean emptying your wallet when food prices catch up to drought impacts.
    Effects on retail food prices nationwide could start to appear on supermarket shelves as early as this fall, according to the USDA Economic Research Services.
    The impacts on food prices include:
    A possible decrease in the cost of beef, pork, poultry and dairy as farmers thin herds in an effort to stretch feed, which will subsequently bounce back causing a potential rise in prices as supplies shrink.
  • An increase in the cost of dairy products, including milk, cheese, butter and ice cream.
  • An increase on packaged and processed foods, such as cereal and corn flour.
The full extent of the price increase at the store may take 10 months to a year, according to the Economic Research Services.
A 50 percent rise in the farm price of corn historically leads to an increase in retail food prices by 0.5 to 1 percent, according to the Economic Research Services.
It is predicted that food prices will increase between three and four percent, which is slightly above the historical averages, according to the Economic Research Services.
With the drought, the full effect of the dry weather on food prices is evident on market shelves.
"The drought is definitely going to effect everybody," said Dave Williams, National Association of Farm Broadcasters and Broadcast Council Member of Pennsylvania.
Locally, Williams said farmers in Wayne and Pike Counties "are more fortunate then in other parts" of the country where the drought hit the hardest "in the major grain states." These states include Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and eastern parts of Nebraska.
The ever increasing global economy is also highlighted by the effects of the drought. This is shown by statistics which illustrate countries like China and India "are purchasing more" food from the United States as a result of more of the population moving into the middle class.
Page 6 of 7 - With the exporting of local food, that leaves less for locals to buy which stresses the shortage.
The effect directly to the consumer will be seen as food prices will rise. Williams says consumers may see "a two to three percent" in food items.
Dairy and beef farmers have also been hit hard, as the "price of feed has gone up dramatically" as a direct result of the drought.
Corn, which is used in feed, "is over $8" a bushel and "will continue to rise for quite a while." Other grains, like wheat and rice, will also have a large price increase.
Farmers who cut hay were able to harvest first cutting, but "second and third cuttings were very limited."
Vegetable farmers without irrigation systems also "had sizable damage" to their crop as a result of the parched weather. "The drought came at a critical time," for vegetable farmers, and "crops didn't mature properly" as a result.
Williams did say that, on a positive note, the drought could have been worse. He said farmers in the county "should be thankful we aren't in a real bad state."
Farmers aren't the only ones experiencing the effects of the drought. Businesses of all kinds, especially small businesses, are seeing the change in prices affecting they way they run.
"It's a domino effect," says Betsy Sassano, co-owner of La Rustica Trattoria in Waymart. "Everyone is struggling, even larger corporations, which means small businesses are really struggling. It's becoming harder and harder for small businesses to stay in business. The increase in prices and government regulations is causing a strain."
Sassano feels that it isn't just the drought that's causing the change.
"Between the drought, floods, fires, hurricanes, etc, the prices have increased," she says. "We buy cheesesteak every week, and each time the price is higher. Years ago we used to be able to buy a case of cheese for $25, and now a case of cheese if $250. The expenses and costs and astronomical. It's becoming a matter of who can survive the longest and you try to survive as long as you can as a business."
Sassano and her husband, Joe, are doing their best to remain optimistic.
Page 7 of 7 - "You have to hope you can pay all your bills and survive another year," she states. "We always hope for a better day, but we don't see changes. All we can do is hope. If you give up hope, then you may as well hang it up anyway. And you have to love what you do as well, or you won't make it."
She says that hopefully it will get better, but it's not going to happen overnight.
"My husband and I are really proud of our restaurant," Sassano explains. "We thank everyone who supports our business."