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Dry Harvest

Published in Gourmet Live 10.03.12
This year's major drought in the U.S. will change the way we eat for months—if not years—to come. Can this disaster teach us how to dine differently for good? Katherine Harmon reports
Dry Harvest

Cornfields near Frichton, Indiana, July 17, 2012

By the end of the summer of 2012, the United States was experiencing its worst drought in 50 years. Crops were drastically damaged and on government agriculture maps, a searing, disaster-level red burned through Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and other states in the country's corn belt and breadbasket—states that usually, if you fly over them on a clear day, bear the distinctive green patchwork of productive farming. But if you flew over or drove through the stricken regions this summer, what you likely saw instead was a landscape blighted by the browns, tans, and yellows of struggling crops. Many corn stalks in Tennessee grew only a fraction of their usual height; others in Illinois produced ears with sparse, shrunken kernels. Soy and wheat fields around the country struggled to last through the summer, whose unusually high temperatures added insult to agricultural injury.

The growers of the United States' biggest commercial crops—corn, soy, and wheat—have not been the only farmers to take a huge hit this year. Animal operations—from eggs to beef—are also already feeling the pinch as they see feed prices climb. Even at farmers' markets across the country, growers have been coming up short. And although the heat of the summer may have faded, we have not yet felt the full force of the 2012 drought on our food—in fact, we might continue to feel the effects for years.

"Through the next several years, we will see the drought impact in food pricing and food ingredients," says Chad Hart, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University in Ames. The force of the drought will flow through the better part of the agricultural food chain, the low yields first pushing up the price of grains, then the processed foods made from those grains and, finally, the animals that are raised on those grains. Though summer is behind us, the National Weather Service predicts continued drought in at least a dozen states through December—possibly beyond. Even when precipitation comes, "that doesn't fix the food issue," Hart says. The damage has already been done: The shifts in food availability and pricing that we will be feeling for years were set in motion months ago, under bright, rainless Midwestern skies. And climate models forecast continuing drier conditions through much of the western United States.

Some food experts suggest, however, that the drought offers a new opportunity to embrace a diet that's ultimately more healthful and even more delicious than most Americans' diet now. A shift in American food habits prompted by poor harvests and related scarcity and price increases this year could actually have positive ramifications for our wallets, communities, and the environment—well beyond the duration of the impacts from this year's drought. New dining habits are already being considered by restaurant owners and chefs who are trying to parse what these changes mean for what their customers will be eating—and paying.

Drought on the Menu

Late this summer, chef and Slow Food devotee M.J. Adams began to notice that the potatoes she was buying from her usual local producers to use at her critically acclaimed bistro, the Corn Exchange in Rapid City, South Dakota, didn't quite taste right. Those she would use in menu standbys such as Gruyère-potato cakes and oven-roasted pommes frites were "starchy, watery, and mealy," says Adams, who worked at prominent Manhattan restaurants, including Alison on Dominick and Seasons, before opening the Corn Exchange 14 years ago. "I was kind of sad—they almost taste like they were frozen." Why? In an effort to beat the drought and the heat, farmers have been watering—and watering, and watering. This inundation makes for far less flavorful spuds. Beets and other root vegetables have also been suffering, she says. Producers have been pulling them up earlier this year to avoid the extra cost of having to water them through an early fall that had still not seen much, if any, rain. So, instead, she is shifting her focus to other produce, including pumpkins, leeks, pears, and other crops whose planting and cultivation allowed them to endureor avoidthe brunt of this summer's blow.

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