The changes on Chef Adams' menu underscore a little-discussed fact about this year's drought: It's not just large-scale farms who have been affected, it's also the smaller producers from whom chefs like to source local ingredients. The farming crisis "hit all sectors of food production," from industrial corn and soy operations right down to small, family vegetable farms growing for markets and restaurants, Hart affirms. A survey of the farmers' market in Des Moines, for example, showed that even mom-and-pop, local producers were facing crop challenges, despite their use of cultivation methods that tend to be more environmentally attuned than those used by big producers.
But the problems faced by bigger farms may ultimately have the widest impact on restaurants and home cooks. In Iowa, which grows the most corn of any state, dedicating 13.7 million acres to this mostly monoculture crop, Hart says growers were harvesting weeks early (in mid September, rather than mid October) this year. "It sounds like a good thing, until you see what it does to the crop." With those weeks shaved off of the growing time, the amount, size, and quality of corn kernels drop considerably, making for less food—and animal feed. Decreased corn growth also means less corn to make the ubiquitous sweetener high-fructose corn syrup and many processed, packaged foods, as well as ethanol-based fuel. Even with genetically modified strains that are supposed to be more drought-tolerant, a healthy harvest is not guaranteed in times of severe drought. And other commodity crops, including soy, wheat, and sorghum, which are widely used in manufactured foods, have suffered as well.
Hurting the Meat Lockers
Chickens, pigs, and cows are even larger consumers of American-grown corn than people are, eating the mass-produced field variety, rather than the sweet corn that we usually prepare for our own tables. So when field corn availability drops, prices for feed go up—and so does the cost of the animals that eat it. To stay competitive, farmers need to keep their prices as low as possible—for as long as possible. Some are already facing the question of whether to slaughter animals early to save on months of feed later, a hard choice that would mean less income—and less meat—later. By early September, Clayton Chapman, chef and owner of the Grey Plume , an Omaha, Nebraska, farm-to-table restaurant, was already paying 40 percent more for his poultry due to the drought and heat.
The prices climb predictably, with poultry rising first, then pork, then beef. "We can turn a chick into a chicken ready to fry or broil within a matter of weeks," so shifts in feed prices are felt in as much time, Hart says. To raise a hog for market takes about four to six months, and, for cattle, it takes more than a year.
For that reason, Chapman is anxious about the coming months. "It's really been a big wake-up," he says. His menu includes a $38 strip loin cut of American Wagyu beef—served with carefully curated seasonal sides, such as heirloom potato purée, tomato confit, and seared shiitakes—from a ranch about 60 miles away. It's unclear how much customers will be willing to spend on such a dish in the future̬even as Chapman's costs to buy the beef increase. Grass-fed and grass-finished beef have also been facing price increases due to poor grass harvests.
Costs of the Drought for Consumers
In coming months, consumers at grocery stores and restaurants will see meat prices rising everywhere—and the nicest cuts of meat will be climbing the most, Hart notes. "If you're looking for a drought-friendly meal, it probably doesn't include a lot of meat," he says. An alternative to cutting meat entirely is to try products from animals that are better adapted to harsh climates, or animals that are fed less corn-based feed, such as lamb cuts or goat cheeses, Adams says. Although these foods might still be a bit more expensive than previously, they are less likely to be as sharply affected as more familiar meat options.