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Fresh Food

Mother Nature Deals a Blow to Farmers and Retailers

Buckle up for higher prices for a variety of crops, courtesy of farm-belt floods, 'bomb cyclones,' hurricanes and more
Photograph: Shutterstock

Lempert Report

Farmers have experienced incredibly hard times over the past 12 months because of Mother Nature, which will affect pricing and supplies for every supermarket in the nation.

The recent farm-belt floods were another tough blow coming off last October’s Hurricane Michael in the Southeast, which wreaked havoc for pecan growers, who lost an estimated $600 million—and that’s not even counting other losses—in peanuts and cotton. A month prior, in September, Hurricane Florence destroyed the sweet potato crop and was responsible for the loss of more than 3.4 million chickens and turkeys in North Carolina.

This year, farmers heeded the March warning of “in like a lion,” but the weather was still failing to cooperate by the time is was poised to “go out like a lamb.” Farmers and ranchers have been hit hard by major flooding in parts of the Midwest following the “bomb cyclones” that brought heavy rain, wind and snow to the region. Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Colorado, Minnesota and Wisconsin have declared emergencies—and flooding claimed the lives of at least two Nebraska residents, including a farmer who was swept away while attempting to use his tractor to help stranded motorists.

The snowfall and destructive floodwaters have also caused extensive livestock fatalities, with calving season now underway. The damage will surely devastate cattle, hog, grain and other commodity markets and send prices soaring. The torrential deluge pushed some waterways, including the Missouri River, to record levels in Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota. This flooding is the worst in nearly a decade in some places. The effects will be felt on cattle, corn and wheat, and it has certainly delayed much plantings of all crops.

Farmers are a resilient lot, and they are working hard and in unity to help each other survive these tumultuous times. Many farmers and retailers alike are working on solutions that can protect their crops and their livelihoods, and a question is being raised more often lately about whether indoor farming is the future. Cities play an often overlooked role in the production and consumption of food, according to the World Economic Forum, whose recent report found that 80% of all food is expected to be consumed in cities by 2050.

Vertical farming—including hydroponics—could help urban farmers grow food in densely populated towns and cities where land is scarce. Imagine the idea of a multistory vertical farm in midtown Manhattan and how many people those foods could serve within a 10-mile radius, while also avoiding the expense and environmental impacts of transporting produce and other crops from around the globe. Through careful manipulation and management of the growing environment—including the amount of water, pH levels and the combination of specific nutrients—indoor farming grows plants faster than other traditional farming methods, with the lights on 24/7, which alone could yield a farmer three times more than on a traditional farm.

Grocery retailers across the country are building relationships with indoor farms; in some cases they’re committing to an entire production season, which helps these farmers create a more sustainable business than having to rely on uncontrollable climate events.

Indoor farming will never replace all of the output from conventional farmers—nor should it. But as farmers work hard to maintain their third-, fourth- and even fifth-generation farms, the new generation of farmers, many of whom are college-educated, are using technologies to guarantee a consistent and quality source of supply to our grocers.

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