EAST NAPLES — Rosemary LaRose stayed away from buying meat because of the higher prices she saw during a recent visit to Oakes Farms Market in East Naples.
"I don't like that I have to pay so much, but I don't have much of a choice," the Naples resident said.
As food prices rose across the nation due to the corn crop drought in the Midwest, Southwest Florida customers felt the price pinch. What happens next to the crops in that agricultural region, following the deluge brought by Hurricane Isaac as it moved north, remains to be seen.
To gauge the extent of what nature has done to food prices, the Daily News staff will track and report during the coming weeks on the price of foods that might be affected by severe weather damage to crops.
Oakes Farm Market manager Eric Oakes said beef prices already have increased by at least 10 percent to 15 percent.
While the price of beef and processed food have risen, Oakes said the overall price in sweet corn, which is bought in Delaware, has been stable. Customers can purchase six ears of corn for $3.
"I think we have enough field corn growing all over the U.S. that compensates for things not to get any worse," Oakes said. "Unless, of course, if there is another drought in the country, it will affect the supply and demand."
Frank Murphy, the market's butcher, said the wholesale price from last year to this year on Black Angus beef increased 30 percent, or from $8.99 to $10.99 per pound.
Murphy, who has overseen the meat department at Oakes for 14 years, said the long-range prediction is for high meat prices.
"Here at Oakes, we do hold down the prices as best as we can, and in fact, we are less expensive than major supermarkets," said Murphy, who greeted customers and offered freshly cooked bacon from behind a glass counter.
Retail prices at the supermarket have increased by about 15 percent, Murphy added.
LaRose, who purchased chicken for $6.49 and four center-cut loin chops for $4.39 per pound, said she shops where she can find good quality food despite the price. However, LaRose said she is concerned about families that cannot afford the hike in grocery prices.
"In all times, but especially during times of increasing costs, we position ourselves as customer advocates by challenging cost increases from suppliers and making sure such increases are justified," Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten said. "We have been successful in delaying some cost increases, reducing the amounts of some increases and working with our suppliers to create more weekly specials."
Nicole LeBeau, Sweetbay Supermarket spokeswoman, said Sweetbay's prices have remained the same, primarily due to the fact that the supermarket has long-term vendor contracts.
"We haven't seen an increase but that doesn't mean that we will not see one down the line. Certainly it will have to do with Mother Nature and supply and demand," LeBeau said.
The drought also affects livestock operations through an increase in feed prices.
Jim Handley, executive vice president of the Florida Cattlemen's Association, said the livestock industry has seen a reduction in the money it gets for livestock because feed costs have gone up. Feed has increased 20 percent from where it was earlier in the spring.
"I think every citizen is going to be affected one way or another indirectly," Handley said. "We will work through it and we (Florida) are certainly in better shape than other parts of the country. But what affects the guys out West certainly affects us."
While the country already relies on oil and gas from other countries, Handley said the U.S. also may have to depend on other countries for food.
"That would be quite alarming and concerning to me," Handley said.
Nearly all Floridians — 95 percent — are worried that the nation's severe drought will drive up food prices, and 88 percent fear it will raise their fuel costs, according to a survey released earlier this month by ORC International that was conducted for the nonpartisan Civil Society Institute.
Naples resident Karen Freeman echoed Handley.
"We are going to see price increases and products no longer being available," Freeman said, after selecting a piece of meat for $6 and a pork chop for $2.72 at Oakes Farms. "I'm very worried."
Like many in the wholesale trade industry, John Bauer, president and CEO of Fort Lauderdale-based Basic Food International Inc., which distributes meat, poultry and seafood, is concerned because of food prices and shortages.
"It's one of the worst droughts that we have had in many, many years, and it's going to affect the food chain and the process considerably," Bauer said. "It will not get better soon."
Bauer anticipates a 10 percent to 30 percent increase in prices for customers.
Due to the drought, Bauer's crop is 30 percent less than what it would have been last year.
"It's going to be difficult for us to maintain our exports," Bauer said.
Even animal food is affected.
"All feed prices have gone through the roof," said Jorge Hernandez, owner of Golden Gate Nursery and Sod Inc.
Today, a feed bushel costs nearly $8, compared to $5.50 to $6 two months ago.
Hernandez said corn is a commodity that is used in many products that people eat, and as long as there is a supply and demand for it, prices will continue to increase."I think the rest of this year, the prices are going to stay pretty high," Hernandez said. "This happens quite often."
Some customers haven't noticed any increase in prices.
"I don't pay attention on the prices," said Ruth Redfern, who has been shopping at Oakes for 40 years. "My thing is, I have to eat and there are certain things that I enjoy."