Hit hardest by state flooding, river valley farms await ebb

Flooding caused by long periods of rain in April and May has made it impossible for some Arkansas River valley farmers to get crops into the ground or to complete other tasks such as cutting hay for livestock feed.

Hank Chaney, chairman of the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service office in Faulkner County, said many farmers in the Arkansas River valley are now sorting out their options as they wait for waters to subside.

“We’re all running out of time,” Chaney said. From Fort Smith east along the river, farmers have acreage that’s been underwater for several weeks or flooded at different times. “Seventy to 80 percent of the crops have been affected one way or the other.”

While some producers, both along the river valley and in other parts of the state, have had to replant or have lost entire fields because of flooding, the wet weather overall likely will have a marginal effect on the state’s overall agricultural industry.

This spring’s poor field conditions mean that the final mix of crops planted will change from projections made in March, said Scott Stiles, an economist with the UA System’s Agriculture Division. Crops that need to be put in early but weren’t planted in time, including corn, rice, grain sorghum and cotton, likely will be switched over to soybeans because growers have a limited window remaining.

“It’s just changing the composition of what we’re going to plant,” Stiles said about the planting delays.

Overall, Arkansas harvested more than 7.3 million acres of cropland in 2012, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. Of that, in the 15 counties west of Little Rock along the river valley, about 160,000 acres were planted in corn, soybeans, wheat and rice in 2014, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. Growers in these counties also raise livestock and other crops, such as hay.

Matt King, an economist with the Arkansas Farm Bureau, said conditions aren’t as bad as in April 2011, when heavy rains flooded thousands of acres of central and east Arkansas cropland. Flooding this year is in a much smaller area, and corn, wheat, rice and soybean prices are relatively low, King said. In a 2011 report, the UA Agriculture Division estimated that spring flooding that year cost growers about $335 million in lost net income.

For flooding this year, “from a row crop perspective, it’s not a huge impact area,” King said. “For the individual, it will be a significant impact … On the state overall, it may have a marginal impact.”

In the western river valley, growers typically have small operations that are less able to spread out the risk between different crops than their counterparts to the east, Chaney said. As an example, he knows of one grower who lost his wheat and straw crops that he used to provide an income until his soybeans are ready for harvest.

On Monday, Chaney and other extension officials plan to meet in Morrilton with river valley farmers to discuss ways they can respond to lost or damaged crops. The meeting will begin at 9:30 a.m. in the multipurpose building at the Conway County Fairgrounds.

Tom Troxel, associate head of animal science for the Agriculture Division, said Monday that he hadn’t gotten any reports of cattle being lost to flooding.

But, bottomland flooding and generally wet conditions have taken a toll on the state’s hay crop and pastures, he said, adding that most growers missed the first cutting in May. With current wet conditions, he expects the second cutting in June to be almost nonexistent. State officials expect farmers to have about 1.2 million acres devoted to hay in 2015.

“What hay cutting we will get will be of very poor quality and low quantity, and that’s going to hurt us when we go to feed that hay next winter,” Troxel said.

Sean Clarke, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in North Little Rock, said many fields will remain flooded over the next several days given last weekend’s storms combined with water releases at dams in Oklahoma.

“The rivers did come to a crest last week. They have since fallen a little bit, but they are expected to rise again this week” to at least the same level seen last week, Clarke said. “There has been a little bit of relief for some locations, but it’s bound to get worse again.”

In May, the weather service tracked five severestorm systems that dumped heavy rains across the state.

While low-lying areas in the river valley flooded and many fields became too wet for farmers to work around the state, growers have been able to plant crops during relatively brief dry spells.

Through Sunday, 100 percent of the state’s corn crop had been planted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. The service estimated in March that about 530,000 acres of corn would be planted in Arkansas this year.

The service also said that 92 percent of the state’s cotton crop had been planted, compared with 99 percent a year ago. The estimate had been for 230,000 acres of cotton this year.

The service also reported that about 96 percent of the estimated 1.4 million acres of rice has been planted, slightly behind last year’s pace.

Jarrod Hardke, a rice agronomist for the Agriculture Division, said that at this point, this year’s rice crop is in the ground.

However, he said it’s too soon to tell how flooding and wet fields will affect yields. While he saw more replanting than he liked, Hardke said those who managed to find dry spells in which to plant have the potential to do very well.

Stiles and others noted that even though 2014 started out very wet with lots of late planting, growers still managed to match or beat several per-acre yield records. Weather, he said, plays the deciding role.

“We may have good weather on the tail end of this crop and be OK, even if we plant late,” Stiles said.

About 59 percent of the state’s projected 3.4 million acres of soybeans had been planted through Sunday — short of the 70 percent planting figure for this time a year ago.

Jeremy Ross, a soybean agronomist with the UA Agriculture Division, said that while there’s still time to plant soybeans, the window to maximize yields closes around the middle of June.

That means still-flooded fields are leaving farmers with difficult choices, he said, because later planting makes profitability a question mark.

Growers in the Arkansas River Valley have watched their corn, sorghum and wheat go underwater. They will need seven to 10 days for soil to dry out before they can even think about replanting, Ross said.

While the river valley makes up a small percentage of the state’s overall acreage, fields in other parts of the state were flooded.

“It just looks like it’s the Arkansas River valley’s turn to get wet,” Ross said.