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The Price of a Good Meal

July 21, 2012

In case you haven’t heard, Iowa, and most of the country, is in the middle of the biggest drought in nearly 25 years (since 1988). Here on the farm, weather conditions are discussed at length. We got excited about a chance of rain yesterday: it was 30%. Most years in Iowa, 30% is a day where you pretty much count on it not to rain, but this year, it was a faint glimmer of hope on a dry horizon. Last week, the Des Moines metro area got about a quarter of an inch of rain. It barely filled the cracks in the garden and was not able to bring any green to the grasses. We were excited to start putting up hay early this year, and our barn is quite full. However, if we don’t get rain soon, we will not be having a 3rd cutting of hay, and we will have to start feeding it to the animals earlier than usual. Some farmers are already doing this as pasture lands turn yellow. Here on the farm in 1900, there would be concerns about food for the winter, as the garden suffered from the dry conditions, but in the end you could always purchase food at a general store. But the case held true for consumers back in 1900 as it does today, poor growing conditions do not mean good prices.

The USDA Drought Monitor Map was released on Tuesday morning and it doesn’t look good (find it here). It tells us that 72% of the Midwest Region suffers from moderate drought while 48% is in severe drought and 12% is in extreme drought. Corn prices set a new record over $8 per bushel on July 18th (at $8.08 at time of writing) with no end in sight. This is concerning to farmers, but everyone should be interested. As corn prices go up, so do the prices of milk, meat, and cereal. The Des Moines Register, Fox News, and other outlets reported today about Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s remarks at a White House Briefing. The USDA is looking at food prices rising another 2.5-3.5% according to the Register. That should be a concern to us all.

Looking at rising corn prices and the cost of food I wondered how our prices compared with what people were paying in Iowa in 1900.

In looking at newspapers we’ve found prices from stores in Valley Junction (West Des Moines), IA with the following:

Sugar – 5 cents per pound

Coffee – 25 cents per pound

Iowa Tomatoes – 7.5 cents per can

Dairy Butter – 20 cents per pound

Baker’s Chocolate – 35 cents per pound

Calumet Baking Powder – 20 cents per pound

Bacon – 11 cents per pound

To compare, corn was selling for 27 cents per bushel. (Today’s corn is 30x that price). Consider that wages on a farm in 1899, according to census records, ran from 75 cents per day with room and board to $1 per day without.

Let’s look at some of those prices with 2012 averages to compare:

Sugar – 50 cents per pound

Coffee – $7-$10 per pound

Tomatoes – $1.50 per can

Butter – $2.99 per pound

Baker’s Chocolate (same brand) – $10.50 per pound

Calumet Baking Powder (same brand)- $4 per pound

Bacon – $3.50 – $6.50 per pound

Just some interesting figures to consider as we pray for rain for the Midwest.

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