As I walk out of the grocery store with two bags of groceries (in recyclable grocery bags of course) costing almost $80 I start to contemplate how bad is this drought? Recently corn prices topped $8.00 a bushel (a 50% increase from a month ago) and soybeans crossed the $17 a bushel mark. These are prices we have never seen before in the world. This also causes meat prices to rise dramatically as well because grain is used to feed cattle. All of this contributes to the record high prices of groceries we are paying at the store and the pain I feel in my wallet. A 50% increase in corn prices contributes to an overall 1% rise in food prices because corn is used in so many products.
According to a recent report from the U.S. Drought Monitor, 64 percent of the contiguous U.S. is suffering from at least moderate drought; 42 percent of the country is experiencing severe, extreme or exceptional drought, the largest such percentage since the mid-1950s. These were the numbers through July. It is important to remember the drought isn’t over, and the numbers so far in August have been getting worse. To help put this drought into perspective I thought it would be helpful to compare some of these figures to past droughts.
1988 was the last big drought we experienced in North America. The damage was heaviest in the Western United States and Western Canada. At one point 36% of the U.S. was experiencing drought. This caused estimated damages of approximately $40 million in the U.S. and in Canada the damages topped out at $1.8 billion.
In the 1950s we had a severe drought affecting the Great Plains and the Southwest. This drought spanned five years and was not very long after the dust bowl drought of the 1930s so the damage was especially severe. At one point 96% of the counties in Texas were designated Federal disaster areas. In Texas alone it was estimated the damage from the drought was about $22 billion.
The dust bowl drought of the 1930s was especially severe. Several factors occurring at the same time helped to make this such a huge disaster. During World War I the government asked farmers to grow as much food as they could. After the war, water was sufficient, prices were good and new technology made it easier to farm. Native grasses were being plowed under to make room for more crops. Unfortunately the rains stopped and we had top soil over native grasses and the black blizzards started. By 1934 100 million acres had lost all or most of their topsoil and another 150 million acres were not able to grow crops of any kind. During the fall of 1939 the rain started to fall again, and with the start of World War II in 1941 crop prices started to rebound. Fortunately new farming practices were adapted and conservation became more important than in the past.
The dust bowl also helped to create some of the United States’ most memorable art and literature. These works of art and literature include Dorothea Lang’s famous photo “Migrant Mother,” and John Steinbeck’s novels “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men.” Works that should all help us remember the need for conservation.
So how bad is this drought? It’s too early to tell, but all of us are certainly feeling it at the grocery store. The critical factor with droughts is how long they last. We are just finishing up our first summer of extreme heat nation wide and Texas has been hot and low on rainfall for the past two years. The best thing we can all do is conserve water today like there is no end to the drought in sight; manage what we can manage and let mother nature run its course.