The California drought: You’re going to pay more at the supermarket

There is no little irony that, in an era of rampant obesity and its offshoot, diabetes — when people are being urged to make healthier eating choices, including more fresh vegetables and fruits — Mother Nature is making that more challenging and expensive.

California’s extended drought is playing havoc with production of vegetables (almost half of those grown in the U.S.), not to mention many other of the 400-plus commercial crops produced there, most of them heavily dependent on irrigation water. Based on the value of produce sold, the state is the No. 1 food producer in the nation.

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In Florida, a tiny insect is decimating the trees that produce as much as 80 percent of the nation’s orange juice. There are worries that, unless a control can be found for the Asian citrus psyllid, which is the vector for the Huanglongbing/citrus greening disease that causes trees to slowly die, the state’s $9 billion citrus industry could be lost over the next several years. Already, more than 90,000 acres of citrus has been lost. The pest is also taking a toll on oranges in California, further exacerbated by the drought that has already seen thousands of acres of trees ripped out for lack of water.

In a local supermarket this past weekend, oranges were priced at $1.58 each. Will consumers pay such prices, or will they, as with beef and other items that have seen meteoric price rises, opt to forgo oranges, dealing a further economic blow to producers?

California’s drought is breaking records; in 135 years of record keeping, meteorologists say, this is the worst. January, historically the wettest month for southern California, had zero rainfall. The U.S. Drought Monitor lists two-thirds of the state in “extreme” to “exceptional” drought status. Some climatologists are saying the drought could continue for years, and estimates are that from a half-million to 1 million acres of crop production could be lost, pushing supermarket prices ever higher, with significant economic impact on the state’s agricultural sector. (For insight into the drought’s impact, listen to this Valley Public Radio interview with Western Farm Press Associate Editor Todd Fitchette:

Drought also continues to be a problem in Texas citrus/vegetable production areas, and in fact over much of the western U.S.

Is there potential for increased fruit and vegetable production in the Mid-South and Southeast, where water, in most areas, would not be a limiting factor? Probably, for some crops such as peppers, cucumbers, squash, melons, beans, peas, various greens, peaches, plums, etc. But gearing up for California-scale production would require a major shift in equipment, labor, and management for farmers more accustomed to growing large acreages of grains, cotton, and soybeans.


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