American consumers had better brace themselves for higher food prices.
Likewise, just when they were beginning to emerge from the slump that has beset agriculture for several years, farmers around the country had better get ready for more tough times.The drought that is now parching many parts of America could easily mean trouble for just about everyone, since whatever hurts farmers also hurts all of those who do business with them.
In fact, don't rule out the possibility of the stock market - already spooked by last October's historically big plunge - getting hurt because of the inflation threat posed by the effects of the drought.
Just how serious is the situation? U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Richard Lyng calls it a "potential national disaster." A wet July could save the situation. But without that, a drought that already is being compared to the one of the Dust Bowl era in the 1930's could get even worse.
To put the problem in perspective, keep in mind that the seriousness of the drought varies from one part of the country to the other. It is particularly severe in the Midwest and the South.
So far, the crops being hurt the worst are corn, wheat, soybeans, oats, barley, and hay. Livestockmen are bound to be affected because farm animals consume grain and hay. Even pet food is also expected to feel the crunch.
In Utah, farmers who irrigate from streams are hurting while those who irrigate from reservoirs are said to be in reasonably good condition. Even so, there are many dry areas in Utah, and this state is about to enter the June 20-July 5 period that generally has been particularly arid.
Keep in mind, too, that so far in the 1980's, only 1982 was free from serious drought somewhere in the country. Even if this were a summer of normal rainfall - and it may yet turn out to be so in some of the drought states - it would do little to make up for the cumulative shortage of moisture in the soil.
What can be done about the drought? Cloud-seeding might help - except that lately there have been few clouds to seed. The White House has formed a high-level committee to coordinate federal relief efforts. But federal programs and other man-made remedies are still no substitute for rain.
This situation certainly indicates the wisdom of keeping a year's supply of food on hand. It also demonstrates the advisability of continuing to push for the development of water projects in the West. The Arizona Republic newspaper, for example, scores a telling point when it notes:
"In stark contrast (o the drought elsewhere around the country), Arizona and its sister states in the Colorado River basin are the driest states in the nation, but for the time being they are spared the water woes that plague other Western states. . . . Massive Colorado River waterworks are the reason . . ."
Finally, the current drought ought to give Congress second thoughts about its policy of paying farmers to take land out of production. The objective of that policy is to reduce the big and costly piles of crop surpluses. But the longer the drought persists, the better those surpluses look.