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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Midwestern floods to cause price spikes, food shortages

by Jane Hoback

June floodwaters are still retreating on Midwestern farms, and retailers and consumers should be prepared to pay higher prices for everything from organic meat to flowers. Just how much is unclear. And in some areas, they also should expect to see shortages of some items.

The floods that decimated Iowa and soaked states ranging from Wisconsin to Missouri caused more than $20 billion in damage, according to Spring Valley, Wis.-based Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Services.

Already in short supply, organic crops such as corn, soybeans, wheat, hay and alfalfa were destroyed or heavily damaged, as were early plantings of organic vegetables. The floods washed away soil and left boulders and gravel in their wake. For some farmers, the damage is too heavy or it's too late to replant crops. Others are still trying to decide.

" People are still very much in recovery mode," said Jamie Johnson, public affairs manager at LaFarge, Wis.-based Organic Valley Farms, which has 1,266 member farms in 35 states. " It takes time to really assess what the damage is."

She said the flooding will have a " dramatic effect" on the cost of livestock feed, particularly corn. Organic corn is expected to hit $12 a bushel this fall, and could spike to $16, she said. How that will translate into the cost of organic meat is not certain yet.

But for organic dairy products, she said consumers can expect to pay about 30 cents more for a gallon of milk, 30 cents more for a pound of cheese and 20 cents more for a dozen eggs.

" The organic milk supply will become tight this winter because the expected poor harvest will impact organic milk production by about 3 [percent] to 5 percent," Johnson said.

Vegetable crops such as winter squash, onions and potatoes also were hit hard by the floods. " Farmers have replanted, and it's hard to predict how successful those second plantings will be," Johnson said. " There are a lot of greens [in some areas], but produce has certainly been impacted."

In Iowa, home to 540 organic farms, planting of early spring vegetables and greens was delayed or canceled on the hardest-hit farms in the central and eastern part of the state.

Jerry DeWitt, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, has been visiting farms and said it's difficult to get a handle on the number that were damaged by the floods.

" The flooding is spotty but severe," he said. " In some areas, there was 24 to 34 inches of precipitation in a short time period. From the organic side, the extreme wetness has greatly delayed timely planting, management and harvest."

Some farmers are waiting for fields to dry out before deciding whether they can replant. The season is short, and in some cases, they won't be able to.

" We're running late on the normal availability of produce," DeWitt said. " Farmers' markets and [community-supported agriculture programs] are off to a slow start."

He noted that the prices for organic soybeans and corn, which " are quite high already," are " slowly creeping up."

In a report titled, " After the Flood: Options for Organic Producers," ISU's Kathleen Delate said university scientists would continue to monitor the long-term effects of the floods as the season progresses.

" There is general agreement that the price of organic crops, and subsequent food prices, will continue to rise," Delate wrote in her report. " How this will affect the future of organic meat production is currently an area of grave concern. The bottom line is that demand for organic products continues to rise and Iowa farmers are needed to help fill that demand."

Experts say prices for dairy products and organic meats are likely to rise at grocery chains nationally, as well as smaller stores. But how the floods will affect the price for organic fruits and vegetables could depend on where consumers shop. Prices at large chains such as Whole Foods, which get produce from farms in California, for example, might not go up. But stores, including the large chains, that buy from local farms in flooded areas, are likely to see shortages and higher prices.

Even organic flowers were hit, said MOSES Executive Director Faye Jones. " They had just been planted" when the floods hit.

Jane Hoback is a Denver-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 8/p. 1,11

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