Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

August 11, 2012

Corn is already popping from Indiana to Colorado in the great summer heatwave

Away out on the broad plains of Indiana and Illinois, cornfields grow into the horizon bordered by long patches of dark green soybeans. Stalks, some green and others brown as far as the eye can see, dominate the corn in this sizzling summer of 2012. Driving west my wife and I saw firsthand some effects of the drought that will soon dry up some of your paycheck when you visit the grocery store.

July was officially labeled the hottest on record — in some states by one degree and as many as three degrees in others. With an average Midwest temperature of just over 88 degrees it was truly a month where one stepped out of the frying pan into the fire entering the yard in certain sections of Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado and Illinois, among others.

 Interstate 64 is a thermometer stuck in the broiling center of the continental United States where estimates place nearly 40 percent of some states in drought conditions. That ribbon of percolating pavement at times seemed to be hot enough to fry an egg on if only you could find a chicken brave enough to lay one in the inferno.

 Government agencies monitoring the problem say that not since 1956 has America been so parched. Just last month alone, more than 20 percent of the heartland scorched its way into greater or severe drought status. I love agriculture and make it a point never to criticize a farmer when my mouth is full. Higher prices are a much better alternative than having no food at all. Without the farmers, we all starve. Their tough times automatically become our hardships. That corn they grow and that we use so much is the foundation of our food supply and the problems associated with it are hitting home as never before.

Almost all of the corn in this country (our gardens and local fields produce barely 10 percent of the national total) is being grown in drought-affected areas. Of that total, nearly half — some five billion bushels — is used not for food but for ethanol fuel. Never mind that the lawn mower motor mechanics say ethanol gunks up engines, it is a big source of environmental revenue these days.

From corn flakes to any product affected by corn, prices are going to increase soon. Expect the same in restaurants, where local taxes and other increases have already raised the prices of most meals within the past year. Restaurant sales are expected to dip because of the conditions. Eating out is based on consuming processed food which is often fueled by corn. Processed food is not just found at the local burger joint, by the way. In fact, government studies show that of every dollar spent in the U.S. on food, only about 15 cents is actually spent on the food itself. The rest pays for packaging and advertising. So much food is corn-based that at least a 1 percent rise in expense should be expected this fall no matter where you get your nutrition.

On the plus side, certain types of fruits and vegetables are tasting better than ever. Researcher Alexandra Sifferlin produced a recent report that cantaloupes, watermelons and peaches are sweeter this year, peppers are more spicy, and onions and garlic have more intensity.

Evidently, the hot weather hastens maturity and builds higher levels of sugar in the plants. Better flavor is the result. One grower said that this summer is “the year of the perfect peach.” In our own garden the tomatoes do seem to taste almost like candy and there has never been a better season for a plain old tomato sandwich with nothing else needed to complete the meal. Evidently the dill and carrots are not much improved this year but with all the other benefits those two cantankerous culinary standards can be tolerated.

Cattle farmers are planning to sell livestock earlier this year and hog farmers are even more pressed so expect steak and bacon to cost more this fall. Insurance will help the crop farmers, many of whom planted extra acres and have their crops covered by policies which will protect much of their investment. The livestock farmers are not able to obtain that kind of security so their situation is much more perilous in these thirsty times. Since those insurance policies are backed by Uncle Sam, you and I can expect to pay our part of an anticipated $10.7 billion crop bailout to the stricken farmers. That, of course, is in addition to the higher prices when we buy food items.

Meanwhile, scientists — those sharp eyed observers who calculate what our world is all about — cautiously point to increasingly high temperatures over the last few decades and say that such drought conditions are likely to remain or increase.

Our food bills are apparently just beginning to heat up.

 Larry Hypes is a teacher at Tazewell High School and a columnist for the Daily Telegraph.

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