Friday, December 21, 2012

Food and the drought

The Corn Belt drought grinds on.  We have a few inches of snow on the ground here in Minnesota but it would have been more like 18 if it had been slightly colder when the front moved in.  But the extent of the drought can most easily be seen by the incredibly low levels of the Mississippi.  The following story describes the low water below St. Louis so this drought also affects the Missouri basin.

Mississippi river faces shipping freeze as water levels drop

Navigation has become treacherous as the worst US drought in half a century brings water levels close to record lows

Suzanne Goldenberg in St Louis, 14 December 2012

The Mississippi as seen from Ed Drager's tug boat is a river in retreat: a giant beached barge is stranded where the water dropped, with sand bars springing into view. The floating barge office where the tugboat captain reports for duty is tilted like a funhouse. One side now rests on the exposed shore. "I've never seen the river this low," Drager said. "It's weird."

The worst drought in half a century has brought water levels in the Mississippi close to historic lows and could shut down all shipping in a matter of weeks – unless Barack Obama takes extraordinary measures.

It's the second extreme event on the river in 18 months, after flooding in the spring of 2011 forced thousands to flee their homes. Without rain, water levels on the Mississippi are projected to reach historic lows this month, the national weather service said in its latest four-week forecast.

"All the ingredients for us getting to an all-time record low are certainly in place," said Mark Fuchs, a hydrologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) in St Louis. "I would be very surprised if we didn't set a record this winter."

The drought has created a low-water choke point south of St Louis, near the town of Thebes, where pinnacles of rock extend upwards from the river bottom making passage treacherous.

Shipping companies are hauling 15 barges at a time instead of a typical string of 25, because the bigger runs are too big for the operating conditions.

Barges are carrying lighter loads, making for more traffic, with more delays and back-ups. Stretches of the river are now reduced to one-way traffic. A long cold spell could make navigation even trickier: shallow, slow-moving water is more likely to get clogged up with ice.

Current projections suggest water levels could drop too low to send barges through Thebes before the new year – unless there is heavy rainfall.

Local television in St Louis is dispensing doom-laden warnings about rusting metal and hazardous materials exposed by the receding waters.

Shipping companies say the economic consequences of a shutdown on the Mississippi would be devastating. About $7bn (£4.3bn) in vital commodities – typically grain, coal, heating oil, and cement – moves on the river at this time of year. Cutting off the transport route would have an impact across the mid-west and beyond. more
This following story borders on bizarre.  While I am in total agreement that we may have reached "Peak Farmland" I most certainly do not share the opinion that this is a good thing.  For example, if the Corn Belt drought last summer turns out to be the new normal, it still will be fine farmland but the yields will be dramatically different.  Historic yield growth may certainly be behind us.  And even if population growth were to slow to a crawl, there are still billions of people who want to move up the food ladder.  Scare yourself sometime—do the math and discover how much of the world's grain it would require to feed everyone in China one more egg a week.

'Peak Farmland' Is Here, Experts Predict, As Crop Yields Rise And Population Growth Slows

Reuters | 12/17/2012

* Rising yields, slowing population means farmland peaks

* Food crop area could shrink by 10 pct in half a century

* Cropland 2.5 times France can return to nature by 2060

By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent

OSLO, Dec 17 (Reuters) - The amount of land needed to grow crops worldwide is at a peak and an area more than twice the size of France can return to nature by 2060 due to rising yields and slower population growth, a group of experts said on Monday.

The report, conflicting with U.N. studies that say more cropland will be needed in coming decades to avert hunger and price spikes as the world population rises beyond 7 billion, said humanity had reached what it called "Peak Farmland".

More crops for use as biofuels and a shift towards more meat consumption in emerging economies such as China or India - demanding more cropland to feed livestock - would not offset a fall from the peak driven by improved yields, it calculated.

If correct, the land freed up from crop farming would be some 10 percent of what is currently in use - equivalent to 2.5 times the total area of France, Europe's biggest country bar Russia, or more than all the arable land now farmed in China.

"We believe that humanity has reached Peak Farmland, and that a large net global restoration of land to nature is ready to begin," said Jesse Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at the Rockefeller University in New York.

"Happily, the cause is not exhaustion of arable land, as many had feared, but rather moderation of population and tastes and ingenuity of farmers," he wrote in a speech about the study he led in the journal Population and Development Review.

The report, supplied to Reuters by Ausubel, projected that almost 150 million hectares (370 million acres) could be restored to natural conditions such as forest by 2060. That is also equivalent to 1.5 times the area of Egypt or 10 times Iowa.

It said the global arable land and permanent crop areas rose from 1.37 billion hectares (3.38 billion acres) in 1961 to 1.53 billion (3.78 billion acres) in 2009. It projected a fall to 1.38 billion hectares (3.41 billion acres) in 2060.


A June 2012 report by the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), however, said that a extra net 70 million hectares of land worldwide would have to be cultivated in 2050 compared to now: "Land and water resources are now much more stressed than in the past and are becoming scarcer," it said, referring to factors such as soil degradation and salinisation.

Ausubel's study admits to making many assumptions - rising crop yields, slowing population growth, a relatively slow rise in the use of crops to produce biofuels, moderate rises in meat consumption - that could all skew the outcome if wrong.

[Well, duh!]
It also does not factor in major disruptions from climate change that U.N. studies say could disrupt farm output with rising temperatures, less predictable rains, more floods, droughts, desertification and heatwaves. more
This little gem is from the Department of Agriculture.  It suggests that using the best conservation tillage methods, farmers can get a crop even in drought conditions.  I know an Iowa farmer who is a big believer in major conservation methods and he got about a 65% crop last summer when his neighbors were wiped out.  Even so, everyone worries that even the best no-till practices are doomed if the droughts last three years or more.  So this little article comes across as excessively cheery in my book.

Farmers and Ranchers See Successful Harvest Despite Drought

Rebounding from drought is hard work—but it can be done.

The hard work of farmers and ranchers to install conservation practices on their land coupled with a $27 million investment from USDA helped numerous farmers and ranchers in drought stricken areas across the U.S. still see a successful harvest last fall.

With the help of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, during the widespread harsh drought of 2012 nearly 2,000 producers implemented conservation practices to protect their soil, reduce their water use and help make their operations more durable—all of which helped them weather the hard times.

Take Tommy Henderson, of Clay County, Texas, for example. Because of his active work in conservation, including no-till and cover crops, he was able to have a bumper wheat crop despite drought conditions.

Henderson’s secret lies in building healthier soil, which is better able to store water through extended drought periods. Even with only half the average rainfall for two years in a row and neighbors with crops withering from thirst, Henderson’s wheat crop is thriving.

The use of conservation practices has had considerable impacts on Henderson’s land and the rest of the Great Plains region—so much so that farmers and ranchers have been able to decrease the water withdrawn from the Ogallala Aquifer by more than 280 billion gallons over the past four years.

The Ogallala Aquifer is a 225,000-square-mile underground basin vital to agriculture, municipal and industrial development in a region hit hardest by the drought. The aquifer stretches from western Texas to South Dakota and supports nearly one-fifth of the wheat, corn, cotton and cattle produced in the United States.

During drought times, the aquifer becomes an even more critical water resource for America’s heartland as many rely on the aquifer in lieu of rainwater. By reducing an individual operation’s water use, conservation helps relieve some of the pressure put on the aquifer.

Conservation also improves the health and prosperity of rural communities. The decrease in irrigation pumping from the aquifer saved an equivalent of 18 million gallons of diesel—helping increase farm profits in the region (by reducing input costs). Many conservation practices source local labor to install put conservation practices on the ground to employ biologists, foresters, pipe makers, dirt movers, welders, engineers and others.

With the drought expected to continue into 2013, NRCS is researching additional water conservation strategies in pilot studies in Colorado and Kansas to help rural America prepare. For example, researchers are studying the effectiveness of removing sediment from human-made water impoundment structures, like ponds, as a way to improve water-holding capacity for water sources used for irrigation or livestock.

Even though the current drought is one of the worst in history, the conservation efforts by America’s private landowners have kept another Dust Bowl at bay. And with no end in sight, there is no better time than now to prepare. more
One guy's high crop prices and record incomes are another's soaring input costs.  The folks who grow animals are in a world of hurt.  Their income isn't rising (much) because their customers are crippled by the various recessions and austerity measures around the world.

Why Corn Farmers Won And Livestock Producers Lost During This Year's Drought

Lucas Kawa | Dec. 17, 2012

According to the NOAA, 2012 will likely set a record for the warmest year recorded in U.S. history.

The highlight of the hot year was undoubtedly the summer's drought, which plagued America's farms.

A new study by the St. Louis Fed details how livestock producers were the big losers during 2012’s drought, while crop producers retained their profitability.

The researchers note that the decline in yields caused prices for these commodities like corn and soy to rise by about 30 percent. These high prices, when coupled with all-important government crop insurance, made 2012 the most profitable year for farmers in four decades, with profits of $122.2 billion.

This flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that farmers were adversely impacted by a drought. Government insurance programs, buoyed by years of strong agricultural performance, have made all the difference in this regard.

Further down the supply chain, producers of livestock were losers this year, partly because they don’t share in the same crop insurance programs offered by the government, and have suffered due to their lack of coverage. One farmer’s corn prices are another farmer’s feed costs, so when the price of the commodity soared, livestock producers were stuck with much higher costs:

St. Louis Fed

In light of these rising costs, livestock producers have had to make some tough decisions. Some have fed their cows candy to cut expenses.

Many have chosen to cut their losses and cull their herds, and the ensuing supply glut has led to depressed prices for livestock. This market surplus of livestock, completely due to the drought of 2012, is temporary and also very likely to be reversed in 2013. The St. Louis Fed reports that consumer food prices are expected to increase by more than 4 percent in 2013, and there have been many reports of a bacon shortage due to the literal ‘overkill’ of livestock.

However, the bleak outlook for livestock producers in 2013 isn't set in stone. The University of Missouri notes that increased acreage and a better growing season for crops could significantly reduce their feed costs. more

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