You can blame some of Arkansas’ agricultural problems this year on two recent hurricanes. Hurricane Ike may further complicate life for farmers struggling in the wake of storms Fay and Gustav.
But farmers’ problems in 2008 began back in spring when heavy rains and flooding delayed planting by several weeks or made planting impossible. It reduced yield potential and complicated farmers’ lives.
Add to this situation, record high prices for fuel and fertilizer, and you have a recipe for big-time woes in a state where agriculture was valued at $3.4 billion last year.
“Every crop farmers planted this year will be the most expensive crop they’ve ever planted,” Jason Kelley, Extension specialist for wheat and feed grains for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, said.
Here is a rundown of where crops stand:
CORN — “A lot of corn was blown over from Gustav, mostly south of Interstate 40,” Kelley said. “Much of the corn has been sitting in fields a month or more waiting for dry weather for harvest. Some of it is sprouting in the shucks, and some has fallen on the ground.”
When farmers are able to harvest, they will have to drive slowly across fields, which takes longer and uses more fuel, and they will still miss some of the crop.
“What they harvest may well have quality problems. We really need dry, warm weather to dry down grain and to dry out the ground,” Kelley said.
Farmers planted 460,000 acres of corn in 2008, down 25 percent from 2007. If not for spring flooding and cool, wet weather that delayed planting, farmers might have planted another 100,000 acres in the spring, Kelley said.
Farmers were expected to harvest 165 bushels an acre, 3 bushels less than last year’s record, now that figure may be optimistic. The crop was valued at $371.7 million in 2007.
GRAIN SORGHUM — The situation is the same for grain sorghum as it is for corn, said Kelley. “Grain elevators won’t take sorghum or corn grain above a certain moisture level. If producers don’t have a way to store and dry grain, their only options are to either wait for dry weather and suffer the problems associated with waiting, or harvest the crop and accept a hefty discount at the elevator,” Kelley said.
Farmers planted about 225,000 acres of grain sorghum in 2007, but that dropped to about 150,000 this year because of the unfavorable spring. The grain sorghum crop was worth nearly $73 million in 2007.
COTTON — Frank Groves, Extension cotton verification coordinator, said 2008 has been a more difficult year than any other he could remember for cotton.
“Much of our cotton got planted late. Typically, most cotton is planted in two weeks; this year, it stretched over six weeks. The late planted cotton is probably doing better than the earlier planted cotton. The earlier planted crop has been more susceptible to recent weather problems.”
Groves said it’s difficult to get a handle on the statewide outlook. “You can drive by an area and all the crop is lodged (blown over by the wind), then you drive down the road 10 miles and it looks fine.”
Groves said some farmers are defoliating to make harvest easier, “but that’s a little scary because they don’t know what Hurricane Ike will do. On the other hand, if they postpone defoliation and harvest, they’re risking quality problems later.”
Normal cotton harvest begins in mid-September and runs through mid-October. Many farmers also have rice, soybean and corn crops ready to be harvested, making scheduling decisions difficult.
Groves said many cotton farmers say insect control has been cheaper, offsetting irrigation costs. However, soaring fertilizer prices have not been offset.
Farmers planted about 700,000 acres of cotton in 2008, down from 860,000 the year before. They expect to pick 1,125 pounds of cotton per acre this year, a little more than last year when a rainy spring and an August heat wave hurt yields. The crop was valued at $461 million in 2007.
RICE — The rice crop is 5 percent harvested, compared to the norm this time of year of 27 percent. “We’re three weeks behind, but farmers have been going strong this week harvesting where they can in central and south Arkansas before hurricane No. 3 comes,” said Chuck Wilson, extension rice specialist, said.
Wilson said if conditions for harvesting are right, farmers should be in the fields. “Normally, they would wait for optimum moisture levels to harvest, but with another hurricane bearing down, they’re willing to harvest at higher levels than normal to get it out.
“We’ve had two major hurricanes and a substantial amount or rice down in the field. Gustav caused 30 to 40 percent lodging in southeast Arkansas, a substantial blow to yields,” Wilson said.
Arkansas farmers planted 1.35 million acres of rice this year, 2 percent more than last year. Farmers expect to harvest 7,200 pounds an acre, 70 pounds more than last year. The crop was valued at nearly $1.04 billion last year.
SOYBEANS — If any crop has proven to be a survivor in 2008, it’s soybeans, according to Jeremy Ross, Extension soybean specialist. “Considering the late planting start, seed quality issues, insects and diseases, a dry July and hurricanes, the crop looks pretty good. I’m really surprised how well it turned around.”
Individual farmers have various problems, he said, noting that 2,000 acres of soybeans is underwater in Jackson County because of flooding along the White River.
“The double-cropped beans (planted on same ground after another crop has been harvested) have struggled all year, but the late season rain has given them moisture to fill out the pods. About a third of the total acreage of soybeans is doubled-cropped behind wheat.
Ross said many farmers are struggling with late season insect and disease problems. However, they’re not enduring the severe lodging problems of other crops south of I-40.
Arkansas farmers planted 3.2 million acres of soybeans in 2008, up 13 percent from last year, and expect to harvest 38 bushels an acre, two more than last year. The crop was valued at $984 million in 2007.