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Amid unusually widespread drought, warnings on food prices

The drought has already raised the price of corn following lowered USDA crop projections that some experts say are still optimistic. Look for meats to lead the way as food prices rise.

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Leaves become dry and brittle on stalks of corn in a parched field outside Effingham, Ill., Monday, July 16. The drought gripping the United States is the widest since 1956, according to new data released Monday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Robert Ray/AP

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Farmers from Illinois to Wyoming are watching crops and livestock wither as the most widespread drought since 1956 persists across more than half the US, and higher food prices won’t be far behind.

Already, the US Department of Agriculture has lowered its crop projections for corn by some 12 percent, and the price of corn has jumped 34 percent in the past months alone. As corn – one of the hardest hit crops – is one of the main ingredients in everything from, well, corn flakes to cattle feed, experts say a rise in food prices is inevitable.

“Prices are going to go up,” says Justin Gardner, assistant professor of agribusiness at Middle Tennessee State University. “The only question is when.”

The first categories to be hit, he says, are meats, such as beef, poultry and swine. But “figuring how quickly the pocketbook will get hit is a bit tricky,” he notes, “you have to figure how long it takes to move corn into cattle and into your grocery store.”

Americans are probably already seeing the drought’s impact, and it will get worse before it gets better, says Jeff Born, a finance professor and director of the executive MBA program at Northeastern University in Boston. 

He visited parts of the afflicted area a couple of weeks ago and says there has been no significant relief with rain. He points out that while corn is resilient, if the stalk dies the ears cannot get water no matter how much rain falls later. 

Bottom line, he says via e-mail, is that “if you like bacon/pork you should buy it now, because by the fall you are going to be stunned at what it will cost.”  

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