Dealing with aftermath of 2012 drought

Friday, November 30, 2012, Vol. 36, No. 48
By Hollie Deese

As a full-time farmer, Stephanie Allen knows all too well the effects a bad weather patch can have on her livelihood. But when she recently had to buy an organic onion at a grocery store to avoid unfreezing one of her own, she was more than shocked by the $3 price tag.

“I was really mad,” she says. “Three dollars for an onion? That is so insane to me. And it was from Holland. I just didn’t realize how expensive everything is. It made me really realize what a great value we are offering. With unstable and rising gas prices, with recalls and this crazy climate change and gas prices, you don’t really know what is going to happen to food prices. A CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) is a great way to lock in your food prices.”

Not even the U.S. Department of Agriculture yet knows the full extent of this summer’s drought on fall retail food prices. The department’s monthly crop report says to expect some price increases due to shortages of soybeans and corn.

But it could be 2013 before the drought’s impact is fully felt at the grocery store. In fact, the annual American Farm Bureau Marketbasket Survey shows that prices had actually dropped about 3 percent in the second quarter.

“That’s probably not going to have a lot to do with what you pay for corn flakes this fall,” says John Anderson, American Farm Bureau economist, of the drought’s long-term fallout. “Somewhere down the road that will influence retail prices though.” Costs will especially increase for poultry, beef, dairy and pork because of higher feed prices.

No Rain, More Work

Stephanie and her husband, Daniel, run Allenbrooke Farms in Spring Hill, and they just finished their first full 24-week season of offering fresh produce to their CSA “farm-ily,” grown on their 120-acre farm using only organic methods. Despite the hard summer, they are determined not to raise the rates for members this year to further encourage more people to support local farmers. The USDA notes that farmers currently earn less than 16 cents per dollar spent on food, down from 31 cents in 1980.

The drought wasn’t easy on the Allens. The two creeks and acre-sized pond on their property dried up this summer, putting a strain on their drip irrigation systems. Plus, weed seeds spread easily during the dry spell, then sprouted throughout their farm after the heavy rains, causing the Allens even more work heading into autumn.

“The 2012 growing season will not go down in the history books as one of the better ones we have experienced,” says Tammy Algood, food marketing specialist with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. “The mild winter included a record warm March. As a result, most fruit crops bloomed several weeks earlier than normal.

“This was followed by a widespread frost in mid-April which devastated fruit crops in many parts of Tennessee. Apple, peach, grape, blueberry and blackberry crops were seriously damaged. Depending on site, crop losses ranged from partial to complete.”

Lingering Effects of the Drought

Noble Springs Dairy in Franklin doesn’t dabble in vegetables, but Dustin Noble and wife, Justyne, are feeling the harsh summer sting nonetheless. Of their 130 or so goats, 70 are currently milking so as to produce the farm’s natural goat cheese products.

Goats depend on certain weather conditions to produce at peak levels. Considering that the origin of most of his goats is the Swiss Alps, a long, hot summer was not good for the animals, especially when the grass they eat was drying up.

“They depend a lot on their pasture,” Dustin says. “Of course, with the drought and the heat that we had, the pasture was not producing a whole lot for them to eat, and we supplement with alfalfa hay. And even though it is reasonably drought tolerant, it was so dry a lot of farms we buy our hay from were not growing hay at all. It has driven our overall costs up considerably. Not only did we have to feed more hay, we had to pay even more for the hay.”

The Nobles seriously considered raising their prices but were concerned about the future of the business.

“Our product is a premium product, and we are a small-scale operation, so we know that our prices are already pretty steep for some people,” he says. “We didn’t really want to run the risk of losing customers by jacking our prices up. We are hoping we can get through this year and hope that next year will be a better year for us.”

Barlow’s New Direction

No one is a bigger proponent of using local ingredients than chef Jeremy Barlow. His landmark Hillsboro-Belmont restaurant Tayst – the first and only green certified restaurant in Nashville – is closing at the end of the year so he can spend more time with his family and focus more on promoting his message of buying only local food.

His 12South sandwich shop, Sloco, practices a “declaration of food independence,’’ using bike delivery to lessen emissions and serving only seasonal, sustainable food from local farms. He also gives five percent of the restaurant’s profits to Community Food Advocates, which pairs community gardeners with local food services.

“Since opening Sloco and seeing the potential that Sloco has to really do the things it can do, I need to have the time to focus on expanding it,” Barlow says. “To be able to push the message forward and be as active on the policy level and advocacy level as I would like to be, even though I am pretty active right now, I feel like I can do more, and I have a responsibility to do more.”

Coping with Weather

Barlow is consistently working with about 30 farmers at any given time from a roster of about 70 a year. His diversity in lineup helps ensure he can almost always get any seasonal ingredient, no matter what weather surprises may occur.

“It is really quite amazing the difference between 30 minutes north of Nashville and 30 minutes south of Nashville and the variation of weather,” Barlow says. “When one area is hurting, I can usually find most of what I need in another one. And that kind of has saved me over the past few years. It is about the flexibility of the operation, and my operations are set up understanding these difficulties are going to be prevalent, and they are set up to deal with them.”

It’s not failsafe, of course, but that is the point.

“That is one of the reasons that buying local is more difficult than just buying through the industrial system,” he says. “Things like hurricanes and random weather events that happen year to year have a great effect about where you source your food in the industrial system.”

Consumer responsibility

Even if restaurants take a stand and change their business model to more easily adapt to a seasonal menu, that isn’t going to stop a customer from craving a BLT in the middle of winter – and going somewhere else to find it.

“We need the community to look up and be like ‘I get it. We are in December and there are no tomatoes. There shouldn’t be any tomatoes,’’’ Barlow explains. “And they should be OK with eating something else. As a chef, do we have the cojones to say ‘I am not giving you a tomato in December because there aren’t any around?’ Where does the responsibility lie?”

If nothing else, the end nutritional value of a vegetable consumed within a few days of being picked is going to exceed something that is shipped from Holland, organically-grown or not. “We really need to make sure that we support all of the new restaurants that are going through the effort to support local food,” Barlow says.

Better Luck Next Year?

No matter how bad things have been the past few summers, farmers are doing all they can to counteract potential problems ahead of this winter and again next summer. They have to act if they want to rebound.

The lack of a crop this summer did not mean growers could cut back drastically on care of their orchards, vineyards and small fruit plantings since, “fruit buds for a crop are formed the summer of the year previous to the appearance of the crop,” Allgood says.

“In other words, failure to care for plantings this past summer could result in a reduced potential for next year’s crop.”

Noble has tried to stockpile as much hay as possible for his goats, but he already knows whatever he can get will not be enough.

“A really hard winter can be tough on them, too, but not nearly as bad as a really hot dry summer,” he says.

“What I have tried to do, because I know with the kind of weather we had this summer, there is going to be a huge demand for hay, so I have just tried to buy up as much hay as I possibly can to be able to get through the winter. By December or January, the price of hay is going to go up even more because the supply is so short this year.

“We are kind of at the mercy of the weather,” he says. “We can open up some more pasture to allow the goats into some areas they haven’t been to, but that is going to require building more fences and more work.”