If you've spent time watching the weather lately, you'll know that much of the country hasn't exactly been experiencing a pleasant spring. The northeast has seen weeks of rain and cloudy skies. Naturally, conditions such as these aren't great for early crops—tomatoes and basil are still in greenhouses, and outside crops like spinach and leeks are taking their time to poke very far above the soil. Farmers' markets have yet to see the abundance of spring, and my CSA has delayed our first week of pick-up to give the crops a better shot at sunny skies.
But though small farms are suffering, large-scale agriculture is also vulnerable to weather conditions. Rain is the primary problem facing growers in the Midwest and Northeast, but severe drought is causing alarm in Texas and other Southwestern states. Two main crops affected so far are corn and wheat, and both commodities' prices have gone up as a result.
Rain and cold has prevented much of the spring corn crop from being planted, leaving growers behind schedule. Ag Week reports that only 40% of the corn crop has been planted compared with 60% of the crop at this time last year. Farmers can plant through the end of May, but this deadline is fast approaching. Consequently, the price of corn rose by 7 cents a bushel to $6.90 as of May 16—a seemingly small increase that could have larger trickle-down effects in a corn-dominated industry.
Meanwhile, dry weather is hindering the winter wheat crop, as well as preventing planting of spring wheat. Nearly half of the winter wheat currently being harvested and sold has been rated poor or very poor by the USDA. At the same time, only about 22% of the spring wheat crop has been planted compared to 65% by mid-May last year. Consequently, prices have risen by over 5%, to $8 a bushel. Again, not a huge jump—but not exactly encouraging.
Agriculture Committee Secretary Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) has been responsive to farmers' concerns. The 2008 Farm Bill contains "safety net" provisions to protect farmers from poor weather conditions such as these. Crop insurance, disaster programs, and other stipulations prevent farmer income from suffering in proportion to price fluctuation. But budget constraints may change agricultural priorities for the 2012 Farm Bill.
Stabenow is holding two Farm Bill hearings in the coming month, one for general public feedback on May 26 in D.C., and one for Michigan-only interests on May 31. She is calling for a full re-evaluations of Farm Bill programs, keeping in mind the interests of vulnerable farmers while still cutting back on wasteful spending. Stabenow is in the difficult position of having to represent both small- and large-scale agricultural interests, using a shrinking budget and finding middle grounds among many differing opinions.
While poor weather is certainly detrimental to all parties, it is wise to take this seasonal opportunity to consider the usefulness and success of farmer-protection programs. It's unclear how current weather conditions will affect the year's production—if crops are planted soon, this delay will be merely a meteorological blip. But with the 2012 Farm Bill looming, it's time for some important decisions to be made about how farmers will be accommodated in future uncertain seasons.
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly magazine.
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