Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Keep It Rural, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Like what you see? Join the mailing list for more rural news, thoughts, and analysis in your inbox each week.
A World Without Sriracha
(And What That’s Got to Do With Climate Change)
I have spent an ungodly amount of money tending to my garden beds this year, which in return have produced roughly two baskets of cherry tomatoes, three cucumbers, a handful of radishes, some yellow beans, one strawberry, and a solid crop of onions that should (assuming I cured them correctly), last until winter. Oh, and enough basil to make the single most expensive jar of pesto I have ever consumed (pine nuts, folks – they’re a luxury item.)
As an amateur gardener with a haphazard watering schedule, I assume a lot of the responsibility for this year’s underwhelming harvest. However, it’s hard to look at my garden’s lackluster production without thinking about the more widespread crop shortages affecting much, much more skilled farmers than me.
One example: peach farmers in Georgia lost 90% of their crop this summer due to an unseasonably warm February followed by a late-spring frost that destroyed a huge number of fruit. The same happened in South Carolina, taking out the second and third-largest peach producers in the country, behind California, who remains the country’s peach production leader (but California’s numbers are down, too. The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts the state’s 2023 peach production will be 13% lower than in 2022.)
Another example: the small town of Othello, Washington, is the world’s leader in fried potato products (french fries, tater tots, and hash browns) because the area is protected from the heat other agricultural regions are contending with thanks to climate change, according to recent reporting from the Washington Post. But stress on the local wells in this rapidly growing, but still rural, region of Washington means potato farmers may soon run out of water, jeopardizing Othello’s first-place position on the potato leaderboard.
And lastly, an example that’s been devastating for my own taste buds: the sriracha shortage. Huy Fung Foods, the producer of the red-and-green-with-a-rooster-on-the-front sriracha bottle, has been in short supply of its famed product for more than a year now because of a red chile pepper shortage in central and northern Mexico — where the company sources most of its peppers. While chile peppers usually thrive in arid, hot climates, drought conditions throughout Mexico have proved too much for even these heat-loving plants.
There are a lot of effects of climate change, but water scarcity is one of the most evident ones, and most harmful to agriculture. As several recent articles pointed out, the decline of drought-tolerant peppers is a very bad sign of how our climate is doing. To use the words this newsletter’s very own editor said while we were on a call talking about this edition, “red chile peppers are the ‘canary in the coal mine’ of climate change.” If peppers aren’t doing well, we can’t be doing too well, either, no matter our own drought-tolerance or taste for sriracha.
Of course, there are reasons outside of climate change why a farmer might experience a paltry production year: broken equipment, understaffing, plain ole’ money issues. Some farmers — especially ones operating small businesses — run on extremely tight margins, in large part because of major consolidation that means just a few corporations dominate the agricultural industry.
Between 1987 and 2017, the amount of cropland run by large operations more than doubled. In 2017, 41% of cropland was operated by large farms, compared to 15% in 1987, according to USDA data. Consolidation has driven many small farmers out of business and made it harder for beginning farmers to enter the industry, and it’s put the fate of our food in the hands of just a few dominant players.
When problems arise that affect this supply (a pandemic, for example), consumers feel it deeply, usually through price. Remember when a standard dozen of eggs cost upwards of $4.00 earlier this year amid an avian flu outbreak that is still ongoing? Some agricultural experts blamed the biggest egg corporation, Cal-Maine Foods, which makes up almost one-quarter of the egg market, for manipulating these prices. Their status as the country’s primary egg producer meant many consumers had no other choice but to buy the very expensive eggs, especially because for a period of time, there were no eggs on grocery shelves at all.
From eggs to peaches to potatoes to sriracha, we are living in a moment that exposes exactly how volatile our world is, for reasons spanning the economic, epidemiological, and environmental. Some of these reasons are more controllable than others.
But climate change puts the greatest squeeze of all on our food supply, because when the water runs dry, the water runs dry for everyone. Certainly the most powerful players will have access to the last drops longer than smaller operations, but at the end of the day, money can’t make more water. Only climate policy can.
Rural Reading List
In 2021, more than 325,000 Americans moved from metropolitan areas to rural counties. For most of them, the journey wasn’t very far.
Abandoned uranium mines that were never safely closed up might soon be listed under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund List, which identifies polluted sites in need of a long-term cleanup plan.
Nonprofit newsrooms, due to their funding structure, are resistant to buyouts and consolidations that have decimated local news landscapes across the United States.
One More Thing: A Little Relaxin’ Never Hurt Nobody
Next week is Labor Day, and Keep It Rural is taking a break from the labor of love and rural news that is this newsletter. Enjoy your holiday, and we’ll enjoy ours, deal?