* Damaged crops will mean higher food prices
* Urges Congress to improve aid to farmers
* Says conditions not yet as bad as 1988 drought
By Russ Blinch
WASHINGTON, July 18 The drought in the U.S.
Midwest is getting worse for hard-hit farmers and the wilting
crops will mean higher food prices, the top U.S. agriculture
official told President Barack Obama at the White House on
While USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said he was praying
everyday for rain, he told Obama the drought is not as bad as in
the last great drought of 1988.
"I get on my knees everyday and I'm saying an extra prayer
right now," Vilsack said. "If I had a rain prayer or a rain
dance I could do, I would do it."
In his briefing to President Obama, Vilsack said that the
drought of historic proportions will shrink this year's harvest
of corn and soybeans. The crops are used for food and feed and
because of that Vilsack said meat and poultry prices will be
higher this year and next.
Vilsack reiterated he did not see a need right now for a
government waiver to reduce production of corn-based ethanol,
which critics say is helping to further drive up sky rocketing
But he said the drought footprint was widening with an
additional 39 counties designated as primary natural disaster
areas for a total of 1,297 counties across 29 states.
The government said this week that the area affected by
drought was the largest since 1956, but the 1988 drought is the
costliest to date, which devastated farmers and sparked
widespread forest fires.
Vilsack said the drought was not yet as severe as the 1988
weather disaster in the Midwest which caused billions of dollars
"Part of the problem we're facing is that weather conditions
were so good at the beginning of the season that farmers got in
the field early, and as a result this drought comes at a very
difficult and painful time in their ability to have their crops
have good yield," he said.
Vilsack urged Congress to work with the Obama
Administration to improve aid to farmers who are struggling with
a crop that was now affecting 61 percent of the U.S. land mass.
FORECASTS REMAIN HOT AND DRY
There was, however, little relief in sight from the stingy
skies across the region. The western Midwest was expected to
remain hot and dry for the next week, though there could be
cooler temperatures and light rain in the east, an agricultural
meteorologist said Wednesday.
"It's a little wetter for next week in the west and
southwest," according to Don Keeney, a meteorologist for MDA
EarthSat Weather, who said they were expecting only a half inch
or less of rain. "So not much relief and confidence is low in
The parched lands and predictions of food inflation will be
another source of woe for Obama as he battles for reelection in
November with an economy already suffering from anemic growth
and weak job creation.
While higher feed costs would likely boost meat and poultry
prices later this year and next, those prices could drop in the
short term as producers slaughter cattle because of high costs,
temporarily raising the meat supply, Vilsack said.
He said the USDA would open up more areas in the
Conservation Reserve Program to give ranchers access to
emergency grazing land.
Corn prices jumped again on Wednesday due to the
deteriorating conditions, rising to nearly $8 a bushel to extend
a rally that has seen the grain's price jump 50 percent over the
past few months.
Hard-hit livestock producers and other groups want the
Environmental Protection Agency to give oil refiners a waiver
from the mandate to blend ethanol into gasoline, arguing demand
for the corn-based fuel was driving up corn prices.
But Vilsack said ethanol demand was not a problem right now.
"There is no need to go to the EPA at this time based on the
quantity of ethanol that is in storage," he told a White House
The U.S. drought is also expected to be felt worldwide as
the world's biggest grain exporter struggles to get the crops
off the field and to market.
"The dramatic rise in grain prices in the past few weeks is
shaping up to be a serious financial blow for wheat importing
countries," a German trader said. "African and Middle Eastern
countries are now facing painful rises in import bills."