Across the farmlands of the Midwest, global warming just got mixed with globalization. The result shapes up as a strange and contentious year with a potential impact on food prices around the globe.
As every Midwesterner knows, we're living through a weird spring. A relatively dry winter was followed by temperatures which soared into the 70s in March and stayed there. In Chicago, trees that stay bare through April sprouted leaves in March. On fruit farms, apricot and other trees flowered three to four weeks ahead of schedule.
For many corn farmers, the balmy climate provided a temptation too strong to resist. Some played it safe, delaying planting until late April, to get past the frequent April frosts. But early planting can extend the growing season and produce a bigger crop later on, so many farmers were in the fields in March, a month ahead of schedule. By mid-April, fully 59 percent of the Illinois corn crop had already been planted, compared to only 10 percent last year and 17 percent in a normal year.
And then came the frosts. Several of them, not severe, but sharp enough, down into the mid-20s. Vendors at farmers' markets in Chicago say the year's apple crop has definitely been damaged, with a shortage of apples certain in the summer: other fruits, like peaches, also have been hurt, although the extent of the damage isn't known yet.
But corn, with soybeans, is the Midwest's big crop, the big earner, the backbone of the Midwest farm economy, a huge industry that traditionally has fed the country and now feeds the world. Here's where globalization comes in, with its expansion of the global economy and, hence, global markets, producing three billion new workers in formerly under-developed nations. For the first time in their lives, these workers can afford to eat meat, most of which feeds on the protein from Midwestern corn and soybeans.
This global market means growing exports for Midwestern corn farmers. Then throw in the federal government's mandate for an ever-increasing blending of corn ethanol into gasoline, to cut dependence on foreign oil. Add to this the seemingly insatiable demand for the much-criticized high-fructose corn syrup, used in almost every item of processed food, junk or otherwise, on grocery shelves.
The world, in short, needs corn. Lots of it.
What if it isn't there? Or at least, not as much as expected?
Those frosts that nipped the apricot flowers on the market farms also bit the first leaves of corn sprouting from a thousand Midwestern cornfields. One University of Illinois expert, Emerson Nafziger, estimated that most of the corn planted before April 1 was up and growing by the time frost hit in the second week of April. If it had reached what's called the three-leaf stage, there was some damage, he said. Some plants are dead, and even plants that survived will be slow to recover and may not produce full ears later in the year.
It's too early yet to say how bad the damage is. This should become clearer in a week or so -- not too late for farmers to replant.
But there's a hitch -- a seed shortage.
First, farmers had expected to plant 96 million acres in corn this year, up 4 percent from last year, so there already had been a run on seed. But corn seed already was in short supply, partly from a drought last summer in the upper Midwest and Great Plains, and partly from another drought in South America that cut into the winter corn seed crop there.
Farmers who planted too early and lost some of their crops to frosts may find there's no corn seed around to replant.
And remember, it's still only April. Bad spring weather or, especially, flooding could do more damage later on, as it did last year, when spring floods on the Mississippi and elsewhere wiped out hundreds of square miles of cropland.
The impact will be felt around the world. Any shortage in Midwestern corn raises food prices everywhere -- not just the price of corn itself but the price of all those processed foods that use corn, and especially the price of meat and dairy items from livestock that feed on corn. High prices of American feed exports sent food costs soaring in China last year, causing unrest there and tensions across the Pacific.
So far, this is a worry, not a certainty. The old saying about corn is that it's supposed to be "knee high by the fourth of July." Come late June or early July, if you drive past a cornfield and it doesn't look knee high, you know you're looking at a problem for a hungry world.