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Food + Cooking

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.

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.

To go easy on drought-ravaged fare, in fact, it would be wise to cut back on a lot of the foods that the hardest-hit crops—corn and soy especially—go into making. That includes much of the standard supermarket meat counter offerings, but it also reaches into most aisles of the store. Processed cereals, snack bars, and frozen meals as well as sweetened yogurts, salad dressings, and beverages all often contain hefty amounts of corn and/or soy. To keep product prices down in the long run, many food and beverage manufacturers might change their recipes, perhaps substituting more cane sugar in lieu of increasingly expensive high-fructose corn syrup, Hart says. The drought "shows that there's still some fragility in the food system," Hart adds, pointing out that even the most familiar packaged snacks are not impervious to things like the weather.

For consumers, this changing landscape can be an excuse to get back to the basics and find locally produced food that has weathered the drought. Chapman agrees that the best drought-conscious food-shopping strategy will be to seek out what is available at your local farmers' market or co-op . The very best bet is to eat what your growers are eating, he says, "to continue to ensure you're eating the best of the seasons."

It might be difficult to look for silver linings in these circumstances, especially when rain-bearing clouds are exactly what have been absent. But these challenges can also be an opportunity to look at our dinners in a new light. "Here in the U.S., we get used to everything being available," Hart says. Perhaps counterintuitively, the drought offers an opportunity to recognize a broader local food bounty. "Almost every area of this country can produce a wide variety of food, and this is a great time to experiment and see what is available at your local farmers' market from your local producers," Hart says. In Iowa, he notes, farmers can—and do—grow plenty of things besides field corn, including delicious lettuce, carrots, apples, asparagus, and, of course, sweet corn—which has been somewhat less affected by the drought than field corn.

Some produce has actually flourished with the drought. Summer and fall tomatoes and peppers in much of the hot, dry regions, including Iowa and South Dakota, have been abundant and flavorful (giving restaurants, and consumers with the inclination to can, plenty of sauces for the winter; Chapman suggests stocking up on any green tomatoes available in early October and letting them slowly ripen off the vine at home). And for Dale Casteel, who owns and operates DC Gardens near Rapid City and sells his produce at the Black Hills Farmers' Market—as well as to Adams' restaurant—it was a bountiful year for heirloom tomatoes as well as for eggplants. The key, Hart notes, is to look for foods raised locally, wherever you live: "It shows you what did come through the drought, and it supports those producers at a time when they're probably struggling."

With a little planning, a drought-friendly dinner can be a rewarding and delicious endeavor. Finding the best of the harvest now—whether it is last-of-the-season heirloom tomatoes or early-autumn winter squashes—and pairing it with simple, whole grains, such as rice (which has come out of the summer strong this year), and modest servings of local meat or dairy, creates not only an elegant plate but also a healthful one. And all of these things can be kept—if stored properly canned, frozen, or just packed properly in a cellar or other cool dry place—for future feasts for months to come.

Resourceful, locally minded chefs are experts at these tactics that, until very recently, were commonplace in most homes. "We pride ourselves on the fact that our menu is 90 percent local, which is somewhat hard to do in Nebraska," Chapman says, alluding, in particular, to the long, cold winters. "The only way we're able to do it is to do a fair amount of preserves—including pickles." And for the past months, Chapman and his staff have been snatching up everything that they can preserve, pickle, and can for the coming season. "We need to strike while the iron's hot because we don't know what's going to come in this fall." Knowing that their winter menu will largely be driven by root vegetables they have stored from the fall harvest, they have been pickling sweet corn, shallots, ramps, sweet peppers, cherry tomatoes, ground cherries, baby carrots, whole heads of garlic, and pears, among other peak produce. And for the pastry chef, the team makes jams using in-season fruits to save for the months to come.

Legumes are another excellent addition for those looking to modify their menu to avoid adding more meat or grain-centric dishes. Chapman is already imagining plenty of winter squashes and dried heirloom beans for delicious cassoulets to fend off the coming Nebraska nights' chill. For a hearty, drought-friendly vegetarian entrée, he recommends serving flageolet, great Northern, lima, or cranberry beans with a purée of roasted winter squash (acorn, buttercup, butternut, cushaw, pumpkin, or other), seasoned with apple cider vinegar, chives, and flat-leaf parsley.

Adams, too, has been planning for the winter since summer. "Once it gets to be fall, I buy all of the pumpkins and squash, beets, and turnips that I can, to help me through the winter," she says. Even in good growing years, South Dakota's bounty is winding down by mid October. But Adams' perfect autumn drought meal—a salad of local roasted beets topped with goat cheese from nearby Colorado, followed by braised lamb with a side of roasted vegetables, such as pumpkin—has none of the sad deprivation one might expect. Instead, it is, as every meal should be, a hearty celebration of the local harvest.

Katherine Harmon is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently an associate editor at Scientific American. Her first book, about octopuses, will be published in 2013 by Current, a division of Penguin.