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CUTTING EDGE

The Wait for El Nino Sows Seeds of Fear on Farmlands

September 29, 1997|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Coffee beans could shrivel on the shrub in Indonesia, scorching heat could pop corn in the husk in the South African summer, and sheep could face withering temperatures in New Zealand.

But for Irvine strawberry grower A.G. Kawamura, ground zero is the ditch outside his office, which he enlarged a few days ago with a backhoe in case El Nino douses his fields with rains of biblical proportion.

As El Nino bears down, nowhere is the angst greater than among those who make their living off the land. Past El Ninos have wreaked economic havoc worldwide, with an estimated $13 billion in damage laid to the 1982-83 encounter, the worst El Nino recorded this century.

Worldwide, farmers and commodities traders are keeping a wary eye on forecasters' often doomsday-esque scenarios about the latest El Nino, which range from predictions of wheat-roasting drought Down Under to flooding in Southern California vegetable fields.

Bolstered by the latest in satellite sensors and infrared maps, outspoken weather prognosticators have become celebrities of the moment, even as they warn against blind acceptance of calamitous predictions based on El Nino's past behaviors. This one, after all, is different.

"It is the earliest and strongest El Nino on record," said Fred Gesser, chief forecaster for Strategic Weather Services in Omaha.

This year's edition could rival the episode of 1982.

El Nino--named years ago by Peruvian fishermen for the Christ child because it typically occurs around Christmas--is already punching its way through South America, setting up a crazy quilt of climatic effects that go far beyond the normal extremes of weather.

Global discombobulation begins when unusually warm Pacific Ocean temperatures appear off the coast of South America, roiling weather and food chain patterns.

As the effects on farmers ripple unpredictably throughout the world, one possibility is clear: El Nino could emerge as an excuse to pass on higher costs of all sorts.

"El Nino will be blamed for just about everything--your hurt toe, tennis elbow and a higher grocery bill," said Dan Basse, executive vice president of AgResource Co., a Chicago research company.

Commodities traders say it is too early to know how food shoppers will be affected by El Nino-related vagaries. Other factors weigh in as well. Southeast Asia's currency turmoil, along with drought, is driving up the price for palm oil, for example.

In grain markets, prices have fallen back from the spikes of August, when drought seemed to spell disaster for Australia's big wheat crop. But yield-saving rains came along in September.

Still, the longer-term forecast is for parched conditions there. And in New Zealand, experts have warned of higher irrigation costs and lower cattle and lamb yields.

Traders are scratching their heads over why China exported corn over the summer even though its harvest is said to have been substantially cut by an El Nino-caused drought. Corn production in South Africa, meanwhile, is expected to suffer from searing heat as summer progresses.

Among other things, El Nino's effects illustrate agriculture's increasingly global nature.

Catches of anchovies and sardines off Peru have dropped as the fish move offshore into cooler waters. Because some of the fish are turned into livestock feed, the migration paves the way for higher costs for cattle farmers as far away as Ireland.

With Latin America already feeling the effects, the governments of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Costa Rica have declared national emergencies.

In Colombia, where officials are playing down its impact, El Nino has swept through 13 of 31 states, drying up rivers and streams and leaving formerly lush pastures brown and scarred. Water levels in area reservoirs are down at least 30%.

Three months of drought have wiped out 240,000 acres of Colombian corn, soybeans and sorghum, according to the National Assn. of Cereal Producers. And the National Commodities Exchange reports that cotton and rice production have fallen 23% and 10%, respectively.

Mountainsides are black and bare from forest fires, with stones and earth ready to tumble in massive landslides. Cattle, left to feed on the stalks of harvested rice and cotton shoots, have grown weak and skinny, producing neither meat nor milk as before.

"It's extremely serious," said Tulio Gutierrez, a rancher and rice grower in Huila state. "Many farmers have seen their production drop because of the drought, and others are not even planting for fear of what would happen to the crops if they come up."

In the drought-stricken Sabana de Bogota, which produces 95% of Colombia's $500-million-a-year cut-flower crop, extremely sunny days are producing early-morning frosts that could damage the harvest for Valentine's Day, analysts say.

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