California's drought has food prices on way up

Not just residents of the Golden State will be hit as farmers struggle with how to maintain crop yields.

SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWSMarch 14, 2014 

With 2013 the driest year on record and 2014 possibly worse, the devastation of California's drought is also trickling down to grocery stores and the kitchen table.

It's too early to tell precisely how much the drought will push up household grocery bills, but economists say consumers can expect to pay more for food later this year because fewer acres of land are being planted and crop yields are shrinking.

Large grocery chains have distribution networks and can import produce from around the world to keep customers in everything from cantaloupe to cauliflower, but experts say California's smaller yields will lead to higher consumer prices there and elsewhere. Some consumers already are plotting ways to keep their food budgets under control if there is a big spike in prices.

"The first thing I would cut back on is eating meat," retired schoolteacher Sharon Jay, 66, said as she shopped for pears and asparagus at a Safeway in Oakland. "And I wouldn't go out to eat very often. If food costs go up, restaurant meals will cost more, too."

Kathy Jackson, CEO of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, which distributes 52 million pounds of food each year to low-income residents, says the drought could prove devastating to the people her organization serves.

Many of the families Second Harvest serves reside in "food deserts" with no major retailers nearby, just corner stores. "Fresh produce is the most difficult food for our clients to both find and afford," she said.

Jim Cochran, of Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport, Calif., offers a hint of what might come. He stopped watering his artichokes a month ago and expects the cost of a pint of organic strawberries, which usually sell for $3.50 at San Francisco Bay Area farmers markets, to go up to at least $4.20 a pint.

"We are going to have to sell our products for higher prices because we are not going to have the yield," Cochran said.

California is the nation's largest producer of many fruits, vegetables and nuts. But with the traditional rainy season more than half over, farmers are making hard decisions about what crops to plant and how many acres to leave fallow.

At least 500,000 prime acres, about the size of Los Angeles and San Diego combined, are expected to go unplanted this spring because of insufficient water.

"We're really concerned about the extent to which acreage is being taken out of action," said Richard Volpe, an economist in the Foods Markets Branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "The real economic impact is long term and will be felt down the road, when there will be a structural shift in prices."

Dave Heylen, spokesman for the California Grocers Association - which represents 80 percent of the grocery stores in California, including large chains such as Safeway and Trader Joe's - said the reduced planting may result in a limited supply of particular produce at certain times of the year. But he declined to speculate on the exact impact the drought will have on food prices, noting that large retailers have global distribution systems that give them access to foods from other parts of the country and throughout the world.

"When I was growing up, when peach season was over, it was over; there were no more peaches," Heylen said. "Now you can get peaches from South America."

Besides being the nation's leading wine and dairy state, California produces 80 percent of the world's almonds and is a major producer of strawberries, walnuts, celery, leaf lettuce, spinach and cattle. The $45 billion agriculture sector includes 2.6 million acres of permanent crops such as almonds and grapes, which allow farmers less flexibility in tough times.

"There will be thousands of acres of fruit and nut trees that will die this year because of lack of water," said David Sunding, a professor in the College of Natural Resources at the University of California-Berkeley. "The reduction in yield will drive up prices."

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