California’s drought has forced farmers to remove some almond orchards earlier than they normally would because they don’t expect to have
California's drought has forced farmers to remove some almond orchards earlier than they normally would because they don't expect to have enough irrigation water. (SCOTT SMITH — The Associated Press)

The snow is still melting in York County and throughout the Northeast, but across the country, California is struggling through an extreme drought.

Yorkers, who are still washing rock salt off their cars, might not feel much of a connection to a state where residents have spent their winter in endless sunshine.

But economists and supermarket representatives say a connection might soon be apparent — on grocery bills.

"It's a very serious situation," said Chris Brand, spokesman for Giant Food Stores.

While the Carlisle-based grocery chain buys a lot of local produce, it also sells a lot of fruit, vegetables and nuts from West Coast farms.

"Some items we anticipate will be most impacted are leafy vegetables that require a lot of water, like iceberg lettuce, romaine lettuce, celery, carrots, fruits and almonds," Brand said.

California is the largest producer of almonds, dairy, lemons, limes, peaches, pistachios, strawberries, walnuts and various vegetables, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Timing: Grocery executives agree prices will go up on produce items that have been affected by the drought. The question is when that will happen.

"It's hard to predict when bills might go up. It depends on the severity of the drought and how long it lasts," Brand said.

Last year was the driest on record for California, according to the National Weather Service. Current drought levels are expected to persist throughout the next three months, the service said in a recent weather report.

"We're watching this very carefully and closely. Like everyone else, we're waiting for the other shoe to drop, and we expect pressure will build on produce prices," Brand said.

Those higher prices will likely be passed on to consumers.

"We know family budgets are tight, so we will try to give as much value to customers as possible to mitigate any increases on produce costs," he said.

Weis is also keeping an eye on the California drought.

The Sunbury-based supermarket chain sells local produce in its stores, as well as products from West Coast suppliers.

Company spokesman Dennis Curtin said it's too soon to tell how much of an impact the drought will have on produce, but it's already affecting the price of milk.

Dairy prices: Starting March 1, the minimum retail price of milk increased 15 cents a gallon, after a pricing change approved by the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board.

"We charge the minimum price," Curtin said.

In this Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 photo, Shasta College students  J.D. Machado, left, and Tyler Murphy work with goats at the school in Redding, Calif.
In this Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 photo, Shasta College students J.D. Machado, left, and Tyler Murphy work with goats at the school in Redding, Calif. Because of the drought, the school is reducing the size of its goat and cattle herds and will not grow milo and other feed crops this year. (AP Photo/The Record Searchlight, Andreas Fuhrmann)

On Tuesday, the minimum price on a gallon of whole milk was $4.56 at Weis, he said.

Prices on other dairy items, such as sour cream and cheese, are also at an all-time high, according to state records.

Curtin said the price increase was partially caused by the drought.

"The drought has resulted in lower milk production in California, which is the nation's largest dairy state," he said.

Though York County receives most of its dairy from local sources, lower milk production in California puts a strain on the entire industry. There's less supply to meet demand, which drives higher costs.

Times like these emphasize the need for a strong, local food supply, said JoeAnne Ward-Cottrell, health educator at WellSpan and secretary of the York County Food Alliance.

"York County is lucky to have so many growers and local food producers, and it's all the more reason to buy local," she said.

The impact: It also may be a good time for the county's food stamp recipients to plant their own gardens, Ward-Cottrell said. "Many recipients and stores aren't aware food stamps can be used to buy seeds and small plants to grow food," she said.

The thought of higher grocery bills is especially worrisome a month after U.S. lawmakers passed a farm bill that slashed $800 million from food stamps, Ward-Cottrell said.

The bill will mean about $100 less a month for food stamp recipients, according to the Department of Public Welfare.

"This is not a good time for people to be hit with higher food costs," Ward-Cottrell said.

—Reach Candy Woodall at cwoodall@yorkdispatch.com.