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Rising fuel prices see state's farmers adjust

Heat, lack of rain aggravating costs by Cristina LaRue | July 13, 2022 at 6:38 a.m.
(Stock photo)

Heat and expanding drought conditions mean Arkansas farmers are feeling the pinch from higher fuel costs to irrigate water-loving crops like soybeans and rice.

Crop conditions for the state's major crops -- cotton, soy, rice and corn -- peaked in mid-June according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's weekly crop progress and condition reports.

"After last week's high temperatures and lack of widespread rain, I thought we might see crop conditions continue to slide for all crops," said Scott Stiles, extension economist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

Arkansas soybean acreage is considered 100% planted at this point, and of the state's four major crops, soybeans was the only crop to deteriorate further last week, with a smaller percentage of 'good-to-excellent' rated crop conditions and a higher percentage of 'poor-to-very poor' rated crop conditions, Stiles said.

"I would expect those (crop condition) numbers to probably trend down if we don't receive any rainfall in the foreseeable future," said Jeremy Ross, extension soybean agronomist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

Some parts of the state have gone for weeks without a soaking rain.

Ross said a county extension agent he spoke said in some areas in Clay County, it has been about 2 months since they received a measurable rain while other farms have gotten a bit of rain sporadically this summer.

"This is probably not the year we need to have hot, dry conditions, that's going to reduce our potential yield at the end because even though commodity prices are pretty good, soybeans took a pretty good hit, though they regained a little bit of that back," Ross said.

Abnormally dry conditions are sweeping across northern Arkansas, as well as the Delta, where row crops like soybeans and rice grow in abundance.

Crittenden, Searcy, Marion, Baxter and Boone counties were in moderate drought last week, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor map for Arkansas.

Radar estimates from the National Weather Service show that for the month of June, there were areas reporting only .01 to .5 inches of rain in parts of Fulton, Sharp and Randolph counties creeping toward eastern Baxter County, weather service meteorologist Travis Shelton said Tuesday.

Fuel costs are a concern for farmers, particularly those who use diesel-powered pumps for crop irrigation.

"In a dry year, you're going to spend more money, if you get a rainfall, say you get an inch, inch and a half to 2 inches, that's going to buy you at least 7 to 10 days on pumping costs," Ross said.

"So every week that goes by that we don't get a rain to help with our irrigation costs that's just more money the farmers are having to shell out on either diesel costs or electrical costs, depending on what type of well they have."

Ross added it's also going to be more expensive to harvest crops because of higher diesel prices.

The national average price for diesel fuel on Tuesday was $5.62 per gallon, according to the AAA's gasoline price index. Diesel prices have been going down in recent weeks, but are still significantly higher than last year.

"Although diesel prices have backed off their recent highs, the current cost per gallon is still 76% above last year at this time," Stiles said.

"Higher petroleum prices have added manufacturing and transportation costs to the flexible, poly irrigation pipe that is commonly used. Many growers report the cost per roll of irrigation pipe being around 25% more expensive than last year."

Though it will depend on a farmers' individual operation, it can cost about $3.07 per acre per irrigation, Ross said. For a 1,000-acre soybean crop, that's around $3,070 for a watering.

That is for energy alone, and doesn't include other costs like labor, the poly-pipe, hauling costs to get the poly-pipe to the field and maintenance costs for the irrigation system.

There has been less than an inch of rainfall so far this month around the Desha County town of Rohwer, not too far from where farmer Jacob Appleberry planted nearly 3,000 acres of corn, cotton, rice and soy.

He uses an irrigation system for his 960 acres of soybeans during a time of record-high diesel fuel costs. Planting earlier than usual this year has minimized the weather's impact.

"The weather, with lack of timely adequate rains has kind of held us up as well, but one thing we did do in the spring, is we were able to get the crop in a little bit earlier, that's allowed us to get closer to maturity, than we might be this time last year because we had a little bit wetter of a year."

This means his crops are more mature now than they usually are for the time of year, and require a bit less water.

His soy plants are full and shading the ground, allowing the soil to retain more moisture, he said.

"The more you have to irrigate, the less opportunity you have to make a little bit more money," Appleberry said.

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