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Drought of '83 probably won't be felt much at the supermarket

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Last spring, Melvin Wagner looked forward to a bin-busting harvest. US crop production had set records in recent years. But the Midwestern summer dried up his dreams.

Drought withered crops throughout the region. Mr. Wagner harvested his spring wheat before any damage was done, but his corn and soybeans were hit hard. The corn crop, which he plans to begin harvesting next week, could end up being only a quarter of what it was a year ago.

But, ironically, while some farmers' crops failed completely and commodity prices zoomed upward in reaction to the news, the drought of '83 is expected to have little impact at the grocery store.

Analysts, still catching their breath over the volatile crop prices, only yawn when asked about the outlook for consumers.

''My feeling is that most people have overreacted,'' says Terry Francl, agricultural economist with Continental Bank in Chicago.

''What's all the fuss about?'' asks Ross Korves, a research economist at American Farm Bureau Federation. In recent years, ''food has been just an incredibly good buy. It's still going to be a pretty good buy.''

In fact, 1978 was the last year that food prices rose higher than the general rate of inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, he says. They are likely to rise higher than the index in 1984, but only moderately so. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) forecasts a relatively low 4 to 7 percent price rise at the supermarket.

Why haven't problems on the farm spilled over onto the grocery shelf? There are several reasons.

First, American farmers produce much more than the United States can consume. Two-thirds of the wheat crop is exported. Wheat, corn, and soybean harvests have been so good in four of the past five years that carry-over stocks - crops held over into the next crop year - stood at record levels this year.

Then, too, high prices in corn and soybeans mostly have an indirect impact on consumers, since both are primarily fed to livestock.

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