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Planting window closes on wet fields

by Glen Chase | June 9, 2015 at 2:06 a.m.
In this file photo soybeans are planted in Jefferson County.

MORRILTON -- As floodwaters recede, farmers in the Arkansas River Valley must wait to see if their fields will dry out enough for them to plant or replant crops as the window of opportunity to get crops in the ground closes.

"This is a pretty serious situation," Jeremy Ross, a soybean agronomist with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, told about 50 people who gathered Monday at the Conway County Fairgrounds to learn what they might do to salvage the 2015 planting season.

Ross and others at the meeting said soybeans are likely the only option for farmers with lost or damaged crops, as the planting deadlines for corn, grain sorghum, wheat and rice have passed. And he warned that even if soybeans are planted, farmers should expect yield drops.

"Every day we're delayed in getting anything planted, we're losing yield," Ross said.

Also Monday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson was asked to send a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack requesting that 37 counties be declared disaster areas to allow farmers access to assistance, including low-interest loans.

Arkansas Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward, who attended the Morrilton meeting, estimated it will take two to three weeks for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to approve the disaster declaration once the governor forwards the request.

Even then, he said, federal aid will be limited.

"A lot of it is going to be emergency loans," Ward said. The state Agriculture Department doesn't offer any standing disaster relief programs of its own to farmers.

The decision to request an agricultural disaster declaration was approved Monday morning by the Arkansas Food and Agricultural Council, which coordinates the effort of various USDA agencies working in the state, said Linda Newkirk, executive director of the USDA's Farm Service Agency in Arkansas.

Tens of thousands of acres of farmland along the Arkansas River have been flooded over the past several weeks from runoff caused by heavy spring rains. As of Monday, the entire river was below flood stage, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The river crested last week. At Toad Suck Lock and Dam, west of Conway, the river crested Thursday at 279.2 feet. Flood stage is 279 feet. On Monday afternoon, the gauge stood at 269.4 feet.

River levels and flow rates are slowly dropping as water that backed up in tributaries drains into the main channel. Dams to the west in Oklahoma are releasing water downstream, which is slowing the river's drop in Arkansas.

At Monday's meeting in Morrilton, farmers got advice about the time needed for soil to dry, weed and pest control, and fertilizer applications. Summer heat combined with the potential for wet weather during the fall harvest could also cut into yields.

That means that even if they manage to plant soybeans, farmers will face a tough time clearing a profit this year, said Hank Chaney, chairman of the Faulkner County Cooperative Extension Service office. Last week, Chaney estimated as much as 80 percent of the valley's cropland had been damaged by flooding.

While Chaney said Monday that he expects it will take until mid- to late June for all the water to be off fields, "Most farmers will gradually plant as the water comes down."

Chris Schaefers, who farms about 1,800 acres in Faulkner and Perry counties near Toad Suck, said he expects he'll be among those planting soybeans if floodwaters recede fast enough.

"About half of my farm is still underwater," Schaefers said. He expects crop insurance coverage he had on flooded corn will help pay for a replanting, but he predicted that any other disaster relief would be slow in arriving.

He and Ricky Naylor, who farms about 500 acres of soybean and wheat in Faulkner County near Palarm Creek south of Toad Suck, said they lost several hundred acres of crops such as corn, wheat and grain sorghum in the flooding. Naylor said all of his fields except for about 10 acres of high ground he used to store his equipment went underwater.

"I'm trying to figure out how to survive," said Naylor, who added that this year's flooding "is the one time we need help from the federal government."

Both men were critical of the 2014 farm bill, which ended direct payments and reworked safety net programs that farmers rely on to stay in business.

Naylor said the flood damage, resulting in late planting and drops in yields, is coming at a time when costs for fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides are climbing while commodity prices are falling.

Part of the focus of Monday's meeting was on advising farmers on how to manage the cost of planting late while maximizing yields.

Record-keeping will play a key role, said Tom Barber, a weed scientist with UA's extension service.

Barber said floodwaters tend to both dilute and move chemicals from field to field. Given the sensitivity of crops such as soybeans to herbicides used to reduce weeds in a cornfield, figuring out what can be safely planted could be tough. Since most farmers will likely replace lost crops with soybeans, he suggested putting some soil from those fields in a pot and planting some soybean seeds to see how they develop.

He also noted that most weeds will die in floodwaters, but if they aren't dead when waters recede, they'll survive as well.

Gus Lorenz, an entomologist with the UA Agriculture Division, said that while growers should be on the watch for a variety of insects, including bollworms and stink bugs, they need to be cautious about applying pesticides.

"Y'all have pretty good insect pressure up here," Lorenz said, referring to the river valley. With seed costing $60 to $65 per bag, he said growers should consider a seed treatment to get the plants off to a good start.

"If you're going to spend the money, you've got to protect your yield potential," he added. That means growers should inspect their fields regularly for infestations but avoid unnecessary applications, which add to costs.

"The bottom line is making money, which is why you're growing crops," said Lorenz.

Business on 06/09/2015

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