Published on 03/21/00

Farmers' Triple Threat Could Raise Food Prices

Forecasts of more dry weather are just the beginning of Georgia farmers' problems. And the triple threat facing them could drive up grocery prices.

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Photo: Peggy Greb, USDA-ARS

"Farmers are being hit with a triple whammy of dry weather, low crop prices and extremely high fuel costs," said Bill Thomas, a University of Georgia Extension Service economist.

"The drier it is," Thomas said, "the more farmers have to run the diesel engines on their irrigation systems. And they will try to pass that cost on to consumers."

As farmers make the first turn into the growing season, even after last week's rain, the outlook isn't good, says state climatologist David Stooksbury.

"This week's rain will be good for early growth and germination for those crops that were already in the field," he said. "And, psychologically, it was a nice rain -- the type of rain we need to have."

Most areas of the state got 1.5 to 2 inches. However, Georgia is still below normal for the year. Most places are still below normal for the month.

Little Rain, Not Enough

Growers bet on March, historically Georgia's wettest month, to bring the moisture needed for the prime planting season.

"For April, there is an increased probability for below-normal precipitation for the state," Stooksbury said. "That holds true for May and June. The temperatures are also expected to be above normal."

The combination of above-normal temperatures and below-normal rain spells real trouble for farmers.

"It's already hot in Georgia, but this year it will be hotter than normal," Stooksbury warned. "And that will increase soil-moisture loss. We have had so little rain that we don't have a large reserve of soil moisture."

Hot and Dry

Expect those high temperatures to last all summer, but in the final turn toward harvest, Georgia might see some wet weather.

"There is indication that, as we go into late summer and early fall, south Georgia will have an increased probability of above-normal precipitation," Stooksbury said. "But by then, it might be too late."

Dry weather and high fuel prices cost farmers more to run tractors, planters and irrigators. And transportation costs will add even more to food prices.

But the main impact on food prices is the weather, according to a report from the U.S. Economic Research Service's 2000 Agricultural Outlook Forum last month.

Prices Rise

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Photo: S. Bauer, USDA-ARS

The report predicted that the prices of fresh fruits and vegetables will rise 2 percent to 3 percent this year. The same is true for most processed fruits and vegetables.

"If fresh sweet corn goes up, the price has to be passed on to consumers," Thomas said, "because there's no alternative we can import. If the prices of other crops like grains go up, we will ship supplies in from other countries."

How much of a crop U.S. farmers put in the ground will affect the price of the product they harvest.

"A lot of crops are up and down nationwide, as far as planting acres this year," Thomas said.

Acreage increases in snap beans, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, sweet corn and spinach should more than offset declines in celery, eggplant and tomatoes.

Spinach, cauliflower and sweet corn had the largest acreage increases, while eggplant and tomatoes showed the largest decreases. Broccoli, lettuce and bell peppers remain steady.

Market prices can fluctuate even more in the harvest home stretch, depending on how high fuel prices climb and how low moisture levels drop.

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.