GREENVILLE, R.I. – Manufacturers of altar bread are preparing to face rising costs of wheat flour as grain prices fluctuate in the wake of a severe drought that continues to plague the Midwest and Western Canada. But they expect to pass along only a minimal price increase to their customers.
In Clyde, Mo., Benedictine Sr. Rita Claire Dohn, manager of the altar bread ministry of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, has witnessed a 25 percent increase in the price of wheat flour since the convent last received a delivery two months ago.
"That's pretty steep when there isn't a large profit margin," Dohn emphasized, adding that the convent is the largest religious producer of altar breads in the world. The sisters offer their altar breads wholesale to many smaller convents that resell the life-giving breads to support their community.
"You have to be competitive," she continued, noting that the sisters are being cautious and have yet to increase the prices of their goods.
She said the sisters will "hold off as long as possible" on passing on to their customers any price increases. In addition to making altar bread, the 52-member community is supported by the sale of liturgical vestments and gourmet popcorn.
Dohn said the Clyde monastery produces about 125 million altar breads per year from whole wheat or white bread. A package containing 500 hosts costs $5.
A farmer in Kansas produces the whole-wheat flour they use, and the white flour comes from a commercial miller in Missouri. Because of contractual obligations, the sisters would not release specific information regarding wheat prices or their suppliers.
Dohn said the prolonged drought has already taken a toll on the monastery grounds, where new landscaping has withered and died. "The trees are totally burned," she said. "It looks like fall; the leaves are falling off the trees."
She added that many of the monastery's lay employees are also farmers, and many have had corn and soybean crops destroyed by the drought.
According to the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center, based in Maryland, drought has affected more than 60 percent of the contiguous 48 states as of mid-August, though significant expansion stopped during the last two weeks.
About one-quarter of the country has experienced extreme to exceptional drought, primarily in a large area extending from the central Rockies eastward through the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys. Many parts of the Midwest received 8 to 12 inches less precipitation than normal from April 1-Aug. 14, with a few areas reporting deficits exceeding one foot of rainfall.
Locally, at the Cavanagh Company in Greenville, one of the world's leading manufacturers of altar breads, the Midwest drought has yet to make its impact felt.
General Manager Andy Cavanagh said the company hasn't yet witnessed an increase in the price it pays for its wheat flour, though it has been notified by its supplier to expect higher prices in the near future as the price of wheat continues to rise.
"We have not felt the effects of this yet," Cavanagh said, adding that the price of wheat flour doubled in 2008 when a wheat shortage developed as a result of Midwestern farmers shifting their focus to corn, which at the time was more lucrative.
"It's tough to foresee what the future prices will bring," Cavanagh added, noting the company currently pays about $29 for 100 pounds of wheat flour.
The fourth-generation altar bread manufacturer said while his company is utilizing its current inventory of wheat flour, he does expect a slight increase in the cost of the next shipment in a few weeks.
"I'm assuming it won't be much of a price difference," he continued. "We pass it on as gently as possible."
Cavanagh said the company would increase prices by 2 percent Oct. 1, which he attributed to rising employee medical insurance and energy costs, and other operational factors, but not to the increase in the price of wheat flour.
The company currently produces hosts in whole wheat and white varieties and larger celebration breads in whole wheat.
Cavanagh said the company operates 24 hours a day and uses 100 pounds of wheat flour every 20 minutes, for a total of 1.9 million pounds a year. The altar breads are distributed to church goods stores and other retailers, such as convents, throughout the United States, Canada, Australia, England, Africa and the Caribbean.
He emphasized that because the company produces altar breads in volume, the cost to retailers should not be significantly higher.