The drought is about to hit you Rain here won’t be enough to keep prices down

Betsy Johnsman bags fresh stone-ground cornmeal Wednesday at her family business, Geechie Boy Mill, on Edisto Island. A record drought over more than half the country is expected to help push food prices up by 3 percent to 4 percent next year.

Greg Johnsman saw it for himself: On a trip to Ohio last week, he passed cornfield after cornfield with rows of stalks stunted and dry.

The widest drought in a half century hits him — and the rest of the Lowcountry — in the gut, despite the rains here.

Johnsman has seen the price jump nearly 50 percent for the high-quality Midwest corn he needs for Geechie Boy Mill on Edisto Island and its sought-after grits.

“I’ve told (customers) I will do everything I can, but I have to make a living,” Johnsman said.

It’s not just grits. Everything from chicken to Christmas trees can be expected to cost more, be harder to find or both — this year and probably the next.

The record drought is gripping more than half the country. It’s expected to help push food prices up by 3 to 4 percent next year, with beef prices rising 4 to 5 percent, according to a Department of Agriculture report.

The biggest and broadest impacts are expected to come from the loss of Midwest corn — the money feed crop and an ingredient in many of the products on supermarket shelves.

Corn prices have risen 10 percent in less than two months and soy bean prices already are at record highs, said Marc Keegan of Keegan-Filion Farm in Colleton County, which produces chicken and other meats for Charleston-area restaurants and other buyers.

“The drought is going to have a really long-lasting effect on us, and it’s going to drive prices sky high,” Keegan said.

The Lowcountry is getting enough rain to stave off drought. But not much of the rest of the United States is. Drive 50 miles west to Barnwell County and the drought is considered so severe that farmers in the region have been approved for federal disaster relief. The further northwest, the worse it gets, for a long way.

The bushel price for corn is expected to climb more than 30 percent, said Christopher Ibsen, of Piggly Wiggly. That likely will be felt across the board in products, such as breakfast cereal, but will hit consumers at different times for different products.

Retail markets like poultry and beef work through supplier contracts, so there’s a time lag before the supermarket customer sees the price tag change.

Feed prices likely will have the biggest impact on poultry products, such as chicken, Ibsen said, but that would take several months.

Because of a cattle livestock sell-off in anticipation of climbing feed costs, beef prices might actually drop somewhat, for awhile, he and Keegan said.

“When you get three or four months out, I think you’ll see a beef price spike,” Ibsen said.

Other factors are at play in price hikes. A lot of the feed grain used now came from storage supply, so the bigger hit comes next year, when those supplies are gone.

The current price hikes are coming as much from market speculation as short supply.

The cost of cattle feed rose from $200 to $300 per ton in the past month, said Michael Cordray, of Cordray Farms in Ravenel, which sells home-raised beef.

That could force him, like other beef growers, to sell more cattle on the hoof rather than pay for feed to fill them out for beef, he said.

“It’s like oil prices,” he said. “If the speculators would get out of the market, the rest of us could survive.”

Locally grown produce is keeping supermarket fresh produce prices stable for the season, Ibsen said.

But prices for fresh Midwest produce, such as cabbage, celery and corn, are rising and supplies are shorter, said buyer Weston Fennell of Limehouse Produce.

Custom grain products, such as craft beer, haven’t been hit yet because the grain harvest is just coming in and the hop harvest hasn’t yet, said Jaime Tenny of Coast Brewing in North Charleston.

“I’ll bet by end of summer we start seeing issues,” she said.

Locally, horses might be feeling it hardest right now.

“Real big and hard,” said Ed Berger, of Berger Farm Supply in Ridgeville. His wholesale price for more-nutritious Midwest hay has climbed 40 to 50 percent, he said.

“It’s really hard to find and it’s really expensive,” he said. One of his suppliers in Ohio quit selling in order to feed the supplier’s own livestock. Berger burned up the telephone last week looking for hay before he found a supplier in New York.

“It’s bad everywhere,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.