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As rains fall, state farmers' anxiety up

by Stephen Steed | May 2, 2017 at 2:01 a.m.

This year's growing season is already too much like last year's and, for farmer Jerry Morgan Jr. and many other farmers, that's not a good thing.

Flooding in Arkansas

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Heavy rains over the weekend, coupled with rainwater that will flow from southern Missouri into the Black, Spring, Eleven Point and Strawberry rivers of northeast Arkansas over the coming days, likely will wipe out much of Morgan's rice crop for the second year in a row, he said Monday.

Floods last May hurt most of Morgan's 4,400 acres of crops near Lynn in Lawrence County. He had time to replant some acres in rice, some acres in soybeans. Then, 10 straight days of rain in August wiped out crops that survived the first deluge, as well as the crops that had been replanted. He wound up salvaging a harvest out of only about 1,100 acres.

The August 2016 rains and floods cost farmers some $50 million. Crop losses in 2009 blamed on weather totaled $400 million.

On Friday afternoon, before the weekend's thunderstorms hit much of northern Arkansas, Morgan said, "My father liked to refer to what he called 'soakin' rains' -- good, steady rains -- but we don't get those anymore. Now we just get downpours, and they flood us."

The downpours came, especially on Saturday, especially in Missouri towns just a few miles north.

"All that water is coming this way," Morgan said.

Before the weekend's rains, a part of the Black River closest to his land was projected to reach 27 feet, which is above flood stage, Morgan said. "It's already at 29.5 feet," he said Monday morning.

He and his family worked through the weekend to move tractors and other equipment to "higher ground" -- river levees. With later forecasts and water inching ever upward, they moved the equipment again, to highways and roads "up in the hills" a little farther west, Morgan said.

He said he knew farmers who quit the business last year. More will quit this year, he said.

Farmers last year got little or no help from Congress, he said. "The banks clamped up too," Morgan said. "All they could offer was loans, and farmers don't need any more loans."

The National Weather Service on Monday was predicting "major flooding" along parts of the Eleven Point and Black rivers. The Eleven Point River at Ravenden Springs was at 21.5 feet Monday afternoon, more than 6 feet above flood stage.

The Black River at Black Rock was at 25.5 feet at 5:20 p.m. Monday, 11.5 feet above flood stage. The record there is 31.9 feet.

The weather service said Monday that 40,000 areas of cropland in Lawrence, Jackson and Independence counties had been flooded. Highways 25, 37 and 69 also had been flooded in spots. Moderate flooding had occurred along the Spring and White rivers.

The White River at Newport was at 29.5 feet Monday afternoon, some 3 feet above flood stage. It was expected to crest at 32 feet on Wednesday.

"County roads are flooded, covered maybe by 6 to 8 inches of water," said Herb Ginn, staff chairman of the Lawrence County Extension Service in Walnut Ridge. "We have rice fields with a full flood, and, of course, they're not ready for a full flood yet. Some corn fields are completely covered."

More rain, as forecast Wednesday and Thursday, will only add to the troubles, Ginn said. "That won't help at all," he said. "It's a little early to tell exactly what we're going to have to deal with. It all depends on how fast the water moves across these fields."

Jarrod Hardke, a Stuttgart-based rice specialist with the University of Arkansas System's Agriculture Division, said flooded roads are keeping many farmers from getting a good look at damage.

"It's entirely possible we just lost a hundred thousand acres of rice," Hardke said. "But the golden rule of farming is 'It all depends,' and there are a lot of variables involved."

Hardke said one advantage of rice is that it's semiaquatic. "That's why we have flooded rice fields," he said. "But deep water, deep standing water, is not conducive to rice production," he said.

Generally, a rice crop will be lost if it's submerged for more than 10 days, he said.

Farmers are planting earlier than they used to, another factor in how damage will play out, Hardke said.

Warm temperatures and dry soil in early April had more farmers planting rice and other crops earlier than usual, even along river bottoms, Hardke said.

Rice farmers whose levees are wiped out by floods will have to decide whether they want to rebuild them and replant rice.

Rice futures dropped significantly in the week or so before the weekend's storms, and the supply of the most popular cultivars of rice is "already stretched thin," Hardke said.

Whether to replace ruined rice fields with soybeans is another difficult decision, Hardke said.

"Soybeans were already going to be highest planted since 1998," Hardke said, referring to estimates earlier this year that Arkansas farmers will plant 3.5 million acres of soybeans.

"Any more new beans will just add to the market," he said. "It's just going to be very difficult for farmers, and we'll need to help on a case-by-case basis on what they want to keep and replant or replant an alternate crop."

Cooler temperatures -- not water -- are cotton's greatest threat right now, Bill Robertson, a UA cotton specialist for in Newport, said Monday.

Robertson estimated that only about 15 percent of the cotton's projected half-million acres has been planted, with most of that in southeast Arkansas.

While passing through Craighead County earlier Monday, he could see some cotton "had been whipped around pretty good" by wind and beaten by hail, he said.

Low temperatures of 60 degrees or cooler that are projected for this week won't help, he said. "When it gets below 60 degrees, cotton doesn't really grow," he said. "And when cotton doesn't grow, you see an increase in seedling disease."

Cotton seeds today have coatings to resist disease, "but those coatings last only so long," Robertson said. "Farming's a gamble, and it's a gamble from the word 'go,''' he said.

Morgan, the Lawrence County farmer, said damage this spring could be worse "because the White River really wasn't involved in it last year." The Mississippi River could flood, too, as its tributaries in the Ohio River Valley drain into it, he said.

"We are at a critical point in this nation on farming," Morgan said. "Seed costs are high. Machinery costs a lot. So you try your best in cutting every expense possible, and you aim for the best yields. But still you have yield losses, and you see lower prices for everything you grow. That's not even including the flooding, so what we have now is heartbreak and stress. This is really hard on families."

Business on 05/02/2017

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