- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 3, 2006

The nation’s heat wave is taking a toll on crops, but consumers aren’t likely to see much change in their grocery store receipts.

While the hot weather has reduced production of key crops such as wheat and corn, retail prices for those goods are not likely to rise, according to Keith Collins, chief economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Officials for Giant Food supermarkets saw a shortage in strawberries and cantaloupes a couple of weeks ago but did not raise prices for them, said spokesman Jamie Miller. Giant turned to other suppliers to meet demand.

Much of Safeway’s produce comes from local suppliers who have not had to endure as much severe weather as Western farmers have, said Greg TenEyck, director of public affairs for Safeway’s Eastern Division.

Washington-area grocers will begin to see the effects of the heat wave in the West in the coming weeks, he said. If enough produce is damaged, wholesale costs will increase and Safeway will have to decide how much of that increase it will absorb before raising retail prices.

It would take a very severe drought to affect produce prices at Food Lion stores, said spokeswoman Karen Peterson.

While grocery store prices for corn will only see a “microscopic” change, next year’s forecast prices could be affected by the weather, Mr. Collins said. The corn that will be harvested this fall and sold next year is projected to sell for $2.45 a bushel, up from the current $2 a bushel. The price could go higher if the Western drought continues.

Overall, agriculture continues to suffer from the widespread drought the nation has faced since the late 1990s. But irrigation and a healthy supply of food relieves pressure on prices, he said.

“You might think, ‘Well, agriculture must be decimated’ — well, it doesn’t show. That doesn’t say agriculture and livestock production aren’t going to suffer,” Mr. Collins said. “But the size of agriculture in the U.S. is so big and the Eastern half is very good, so it’s going to offset [prices].”

The heat can also affect transportation of perishable foods such as produce. Refrigerated trucks are used frequently, and extreme heat makes them more vulnerable to breakdowns, said Fletcher R. Hall, executive director of the Agricultural and Food Transporters Conference of the American Trucking Associations.

Simple mechanical failures, such as an overheated radiator or a snapped fan belt, can ruin a shipment, Mr. Hall said.

“If refrigerated units are working, they should be in pretty good shape,” Mr. Hall said. “But for very perishable products — like berries — that don’t have a long shelf-life, [temperature] could be a problem.”

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