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April 21--Local consumers could be paying higher food prices on two fronts later this year -- nationally and locally.
Agriculture experts are calling for a spike in food prices due to extended drought in the west and fruit tree damage in the Midwest.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects food prices to rise by 2.5 to 3.5 percent in 2014, which is in line with the norm, but the agency said California's ongoing drought could have "large and lasting effects on fruit, vegetable, dairy and egg prices."
California is having its driest year on record, following several prior years of drought, according to the USDA, and because the state is a major producer of fruit, vegetable, tree nut and dairy products, the drought has potential implications for U.S. supplies and prices of affected products in 2014 and beyond, the agency said.
Closer to home, Sabillasville orchardist Richard Calimer is concerned that the added fuel cost to keep greenhouses heated during an extended winter will factor into how much local producers raise their prices.
Calimer's fruit trees and berries were damaged only minimally from the recent cold snap, he said, "but the fuel cost may affect our prices more than anything."
Calimer, of Scenic View Orchards, said local producers will have to wait and see what the markets will do in terms of food prices, but he is hopeful for a good yield come harvest time.
"That is, if we get no additional surprises, weather-wise," Thurmont orchardist Robert Black said, referring to fluctuating weather patterns the region has seen.
Prices rise when demand exceeds supply. Calimer said Scenic View Orchards was selling a box of squash for $24 last year, "which is high." That was due to too much wet weather on the East Coast that flooded fields, which reduced supply.
As of now, the farmers don't know how much they will increase prices, and they aren't sure how the national produce shortfall will affect their operations.
The Midwest has lost a lot of stone fruit crops (peaches, plums, nectarines) and that might send prices higher, too, Calimer said.
Even South Carolina's peach crop was affected by the cold winter, Black said.
But the two farmers said they must walk a fine line between raising prices and ensuring their customers return to patronize their business next year when yields are greater.
"We're not like the big chain stores, we're a family business, and we can raise prices a little to cover insurance premiums, fuel costs and equipment repair," Black said. "But we're not going to gouge people because they got to come back to us next year."
Local producers who grow what they sell are not operating under the same rules and conditions as chain stores, Black said.
"If California only has 1,000 bushels of apples, it has to be shared with any number of buyers," which often are the chain supermarkets, Black said.
Certain food items will cost a bit more this year, Black said.
"You can't plant a tree and pick fruit the same year, but you can grow vegetables nearly all year round," Black said.
It seems as if local producers will get by, Black said, "but we won't know for sure until the products are picked and in storage."
Follow Ike Wilson on Twitter:@ikewilson99.
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