Beyond COVID-19: Food faces escalating prices

It has been a long time coming. Commodities have been in the doghouse for years, but a combination of events are conspiring to lift the prices of soft commodities much higher.

A definition of soft commodities refers to future contracts of substances that are grown, rather than extracted or mined. We know them best as food and fiber commodities, such as wheat or lumber. 

Shortages are occurring in everything from soybeans to wheat and it is not just in the United States. Readers might immediately think to blame the pandemic for this trend. You would be only partially correct. At the outset of the COVID-19 crisis, the hoarding of food in certain areas of the world did occur, but by April and May, despite the spread of the pandemic, food commodity prices stabilized and even toilet paper in this country was back on the shelves. 

However, the recent resurgence of the coronavirus in Europe and the United States might threaten the supply chains for certain foods once again. If lock-downs in the U.S. are re-instituted (as they are beginning to be in Europe right now), or the cases of COVID-19 begin to decimate the work force again, food prices could spike considerably. Readers might recall earlier in the year when some Midwest food processors were shut down. As a result, supplies of beef, chicken and pork began to disappear from grocery shelves. Prices jumped and are still nowhere near their pre-pandemic levels. 

However, beyond the coronavirus threat, the real culprit sending prices skyrocketing is the weather. It is not my intention to debate climate change. Economics has a way of doing that for me. Consider this: the wheat farms of both the United States and Russia are dealing with serious drought, which is decimating harvests. The same is happening to the soybean fields in Brazil.

But while our hemisphere contends with drought, over in Southeast Asia, farmers’ crops are drowning in too much rain. Flooding is occurring throughout the rice paddies and palm oil plantations in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. The result of all this devastating weather has been higher and higher prices of everything from sugar to lumber to cooking oil. This is occurring at the least opportune time for billions of workers struggling to make ends meet because of the impact of the worldwide pandemic.

Compounding the crop shortages are the decisions by multiple governments to safeguard their food supplies. In the event of another supply-chain disruption this winter, no country wants to be presented with a food shortage at home. Soft commodity buyers representing China, the Middle East and other governments are competing (while bidding up prices) for existing harvests.

And as grains of all kinds increase in price, so does the cost of livestock feed. When the cost of soybeans rises by 81% and corn by 56%, as it has in Brazil, you can just imagine what that does to the cost of pork, beef and chicken production. It is a never-ending, upward spiral. The situation has already convinced many governments to remove import tariffs that simply add further costs to the equation. 

To be sure, the world still does have an ample inventory of crops, such as wheat, for this year with bumper crops expected in Australia, for example. But if the world’s wild weather persists, in combination with another global surge in the pandemic, we could be facing even higher prices ahead for soft commodities. 


Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor representative of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. Bill’s forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners, Inc. (OPI).  Email him at

Latest News

Nuvance hospital system to merge with Northwell Health

Sharon Hospital would become part of a larger regional health systems with 28 hospitals.

Yehyun Kim/

Nuvance Health, which owns four hospitals in Connecticut and three in New York, will merge with Northwell Health to form a larger regional health system across two states.

Together, the companies will own 28 hospitals and more than 1,000 sites of care and employ 14,500 providers.

Keep ReadingShow less
The Creators: An interview with filmmaker Keith Boynton

Keith Boynton, left, with Aitor Mendilibar, right, the cinematographer who shot “The Haunted Forest” as well as “The Scottish Play” and “The Winter House.” In the background of is Vinny Castellini, first assistant director.


Keith Boynton is a filmmaker who grew up in Salisbury, Connecticut. He attended Salisbury Central School, Town Hill School, and Hotchkiss. He has made numerous feature films including Seven Lovers, The Scottish Play, The Winter House, and is just wrapping up a new film, The Haunted Forest, which is a horror/slasher movie. Boynton has made numerous music videos for the band Darlingside, and for Alison Krauss. He is a poet, a playwright, and comic book art collector.

JA: This series of stories The Creators focuses on artists, their inspiration, and their creative process. Keith, what was the seed that got you started?

Keep ReadingShow less
Millerton director is an Oscar nominee

Arlo Washington in a film still from the Oscar-nominated short "The Barber of Little Rock."

Story Syndicate

John Hoffman, a Millerton resident, has been nominated for his film “The Barber of Little Rock,” which he co-directed with Christine Turner, in the Best Documentary Short Film category at the upcoming 96th Academy Awards.

Distributed by The New Yorker and produced by Story Syndicate Production in association with 59th & Prairie, Better World Projects, and Peralta Pictures, “The Barber of Little Rock” explores the efforts of Arkansas local hero Arlo Washington, who opened a barbershop at 19 years old and, with a mission to close the racial inequality gap in his community, went on to found the Washington Barber College as well as People Trust Community Federal Credit Union. Washington’s goal is aiding his primarily Black neighborhood, which has historically been underserved by more prominent banking institutions.

Keep ReadingShow less
Inside Troutbeck's kitchen

Chef Vincent Gilberti

Courtesy of Troutbeck

About growing up in Carmel, New York, Troutbeck’s executive chef Vincent Gilberti said he was fortunate to have a lot of family close by, and time together was always centered around food.

His grandparents in White Plains always made sure to have a supply of cured meats, olives, cheeses and crusty bread during their weekend visits. But it wasn’t until his family moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, when he was 16 that his passion for food really began. It was there that he joined the German Club, whose partnership with Johnson & Wales University first introduced him to cooking.

Keep ReadingShow less