California's drought slowly edges into grocery aisles and packaged products

Many of California's farmers are straining to keep afloat after a winter season that plunged the majority of the state into extreme or exceptional drought, but the state's manufacturers and retailers haven't felt the same pressures squeezing those at the beginning of the supply chain...yet.

Normally verdant pastures baked to brown and peaks absent their usual caps of snow have become well-publicized signs of California’s historic drought conditions. In an effort to provide relief to farmers in the state that produces the highest value of agricultural production, the federal government has stepped up with aid packages and loan programs. And in an effort to cut organic farmers a break, the United States Department of Agriculture approved a temporary exemption from the National Organic Program’s grazing requirements. Under the temporary variance, organic farmers who would normally be required to graze their animals during February and March were allowed to feed their animals organic feed instead.  

It’s a move that led to media reports questioning whether the reduced time cows may spend munching on fresh grass means the organic meat and dairy they produce won't really be the same. Organic advocates, meanwhile, have jumped in to defend the move as a necessary measure built into the National Organic Program that in no way sacrifices the certification’s integrity and serves to preserve already stressed pasture lands.It's just one example of how the drought has simultaneously pulled farmers into the media spotlight and saddled them with worries about increasing feed prices and an uncertain water outlook.

But one step up the production chain, California retailers and manufacturers say the drought’s direct impacts to their business have been more muted up to now.

Dave Clark, produce buyer at Sonoma Market in Sonoma, Calif., said the local producers he works with get most of their water from wells, which have kept pumping throughout the drought. If the state’s farmers don’t receive enough irrigation water this spring then there’s a risk that perennial crops like artichokes and asparagus could take a hit next year, Clark said. Fruit trees could also begin losing their fruit before it’s ripe if they become too stressed this spring, but none of those worst-case scenarios are a given at this point, he said.

Scott Meroney, the store’s meat department manager described a bleaker scene, with reports of local producers selling their animals due to high costs and grass-fed cattle struggling to fill out like usual. But despite the concern "the true fallout is still yet to be seen," he said.

On the sweet side of the industry, Neal Gottlieb founder of Three Twins Ice Cream said he recently saw a small bump in milk and cream prices but said there’s more concern about what will happen to future prices if the cows eat themselves out of pasture this spring and have to go back on feed for the rest of the season. The Southern California Geographic Coordination Center has already warned that because moisture arrived to the state so late this year, it may spur only minimal grass and shrub growth this spring. Sonoma County dairy processor Clover Stornetta also has  seen its farmers’ costs increase, but the prices it currently pays farmers have so far have covered that rise, President Marcus Benedetti said.

The company threw its support behind the National Organic Program grazing variance as a necessary measure to help farmers weather a historic drought, Benedetti said.  

“In our area from October through April (the farmers) can count on grazing on green grass,” he said. “But when the grass wasn’t green for big chunk of time, they had to buy organic feed and that definitely impacted their bottom line.”

Gottlieb and Benedetti said they haven’t seen and aren’t concerned about impacts to the quality of the finished product if cows were being fed more organic feed versus fresh grass from pasture during the past two months.

“The cows go through different periods of being fed feed and periods of them grazing, I’m not concerned as long as they’re fed organic feed,” Gottlieb said.

TAGS: Regulatory
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