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How much are you willing to pay for your favorite sandwich? If it has peanut butter on it, you might want to consider switching your allegiance. As Harvest Public Media's Jessica Naudziunas reports, a shortage of U.S. peanuts is causing the price of peanut butter to soar.
JESSICA NAUDZIUNAS: It's dinnertime at the Rice family home in Columbia, Missouri. Brothers Corbin, Keaton and Kagen(ph) are all sitting on stools around an island in their kitchen after soccer practice.
RICE BROTHERS: Peanut butter and jelly on a baseball bat.
NAUDZIUNAS: In front of them, a shiny granite surface is covered in peanut butter sandwich assembly parts and their father, Tom, opens a big jar of their favorite brand.
TOM RICE: I've always been a Jif-peanut-butter person. Two slices of bread and peanut butter in the middle. And then, on occasion, I'll cut the crust off.
NAUDZIUNAS: It takes 540 peanuts to produce the jar of Jif peanut butter sitting on their counter. For Jennifer Rice, peanut butter means family time.
JENNIFER RICE: Peanut butter to us means breakfast together on Saturday morning, don't you think? Yeah. I think it means breakfast together on Saturday morning, kind of the family time.
NAUDZIUNAS: Though outside these peanut butter loving homes like the Rice's, trouble is stirring for this popular legume.
TIFFANY ARTHUR: We have quite a peanut shortage this year.
NAUDZIUNAS: Tiffany Arthur is an agricultural economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency.
ARTHUR: Things are snowballing and prices are sharply rising.
NAUDZIUNAS: This year, peanut butter manufacturers have shelled out more money for peanuts, almost double what they paid last year. Arthur says this is the highest she's seen the price of peanuts. And now parents like Jennifer Rice might feel the pinch, too. Peanut butter prices are up and will likely increase again.
But to peanut people in Georgia, all of this comes as no surprise. Peanut broker Richard Barnhill says this has been one of the roughest years for peanut farmers.
RICHARD BARNHILL: Probably the first thing that happened was cotton prices were very high, which was very attractive to the farmers, so our first problem was we didn't plant enough peanuts.
NAUDZIUNAS: Farmers opted to plant more drought-tolerant cotton, which was way more profitable. Across the country, other peanut states like Alabama and Texas experienced a drop in peanut acreage.
BARNHILL: The second factor that happened was we have not gotten the rain. We're in a La Nina hotter and drier in the Southeast and in the Southwest.
NAUDZIUNAS: So many of the peanuts farmers did manage to get in the ground didn't survive the drought conditions. Some of those that survived were struck by crop diseases, making them unfit for food.
BARNHILL: There will be a shortage of peanuts. There won't be enough peanuts for us to do exactly what we did last year.
NAUDZIUNAS: And it won't just hit snack giants like Jif. Ardent followers of Trader Joe's, you might want to cover your ears. TJ's has had to discontinue its line of organic peanut butter. When it does hit shelves again, timeline unknown, you'll pay about 70 cents more per jar.
Here's where the peanut shortage and the economy appear to merge. Peanut butter consumption has increased by 10 percent since 2008. That's put a big strain on the supply. Consumption in peanut butter usually goes up just one or two percent in a regular year.
Tiffany Arthur, the U.S.D.A. economist, says no surprise. Traditional protein sources like meat are more expensive, so some consumers are turning to a more shelf-stable high protein meal.
ARTHUR: Peanuts falls into that category. I mean, typically, you see peanut consumption increase during times of recession.
NAUDZIUNAS: Tiffany Arthur and peanut broker Richard Barnhill say no need to panic, but prepare to pay more. And consider this: in Georgia alone, the crop will be 30 percent smaller this year. Do the numbers and you discover that's nearly three billion fewer peanut butter sandwiches in American lunchboxes.
For NPR News, I'm Jessica Naudziunas in Columbia, Missouri.
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