Mike Ellis wants to see northeast Arkansas from the air. “I want to know if it looks as bad from an airplane as it does from my pickup,” said the 37-year-old producer. “It's bound to be ugly, though — too much brown, not nearly enough green.”
Driving the back roads south of Pocahontas, Ark., Ellis' concerns are realized. In an area normally lush with commodities by this point in the season, dry weather has left stunted crops, paltry stands, and sickly plants. Where irrigated, crops look better but often carry the mark of scalding.
“Producers can't get a break. You put water to a crop, trying to get it up, and the heat wilts the plants. This is the worst drought I've ever seen around here. 1980 was bad, but our crops were up and going when the drought hit. This time, it's been dry from the starting line.”
Ellis said it isn't just his neighborhood that's suffering. “I'm nothing special. You can hear the same story all around this area. There are 4,000 or 5,000 acres a few miles from my shop that look like they're just lying out — if stands are up, they're sparse. What are we going to do? No one has any answers.”
The morale in the community, said Ellis, “is worse than ever. Last year, morale was pretty good. Now, I've never seen farmers so cranky, and I don't blame them.”
Name the problem, said Mike Andrews, Randolph County, Ark., Extension agent, “and I think farmers around here have been hit with it. There's very little good news.”
The last major rain for most farmers in the area was in late April. “We've got some decent irrigated crops, but just as many — or more — problem fields,” said Andrews. “You can find the good, or decent fields, and the bad fields right next to each other. It's hard to find a (consistently good) stretch of fields. All northeast Arkansas counties are in the same boat, they look very similar.”
Ellis' operation is a diverse 1,750 acres. He grows 450 acres of rice, 200 acres of corn, 500 acres of soybeans and some wheat. He also has 100 acres in alfalfa.
“Last of April/first of May, we were cutting and putting up some beautiful hay. One night it was supposed to rain. We hauled hay trying to beat the rain.”
But the rain never fell, foreshadowing more of the same.
“The rain was coming! You could see it on the radar, but it kept disappearing before it reached us. I was thinking, ‘This isn't good. We've got 400 acres of beans left to plant in this dry ground. What should we do?’”
Against instinct, Ellis decided to water the ground before planting.
“I took a little ribbing about that. My friends were saying, ‘It's going to rain, and you're wasting money.’ But something just told me to do it, and now I've got a pretty good-looking crop.”
Not so elsewhere. “A lot of people around here plant and try to water their crops up. The result is acres and acres of tiny, scalded bean plants and bare ground. You can drive for miles in any direction and see it. A lot of fields are being replanted.”
Ellis' cropland is nearly all irrigated — mostly furrow. All his early Group 3 soybeans have been watered at least three times. His later soybeans are receiving their second drink of the season.
“I've lost count of the times we've watered corn. Our rice looks pretty good, but I've had to flush every field two or three times. We usually don't have to do that — nothing has gone according to plan.”
With five rivers flowing through it, Randolph County, bordering the Missouri Bootheel to the north, is blessed with a good water supply.
“We pump a lot from the rivers and ditches. That's great, but it only goes so far — diesel still costs $2. It costs a lot to make mud.”
Ellis' alfalfa hay business may be the only bright spot of the year. Cattle usually complement his hay operation. “We don't have any cattle now. We sold out in April, but we normally run about 200 to 300 head.”
Ellis was first introduced to alfalfa production by his father. When he left the farm for college in the early 1990s (Ellis holds a master's degree in agriculture business from Arkansas State University), his father quit growing alfalfa.
“Back then, everything was manual labor, and his cheap labor had gone off to school.”
Now, alfalfa production is mechanically-oriented. Ellis began producing the crop again about seven years ago.
“We needed a crop for which we're the price-maker rather than the price-taker. Alfalfa fits that bill for us. It's a lot nicer being able to dictate the price you want. This hay business — and we grow only alfalfa — is brisk in these dry days.
“We water the alfalfa just once per cutting. It responds very well, probably because the root system is so deep by now.”
Hay buyers come from all over the Mid-South. “We have folks coming from around Memphis. We sold a truckload in Senatobia, Miss., the other day. We send a lot to Texas and Missouri.”
Middlemen also buy hay from Ellis for $4 to $4.50 a bale and pay the freight to Pennsylvania, where it is sold at auction for $12. “Maybe they have $6 in freight, so they're making $2 or so per bale. They have hay auctions there like car auctions here. We got hooked into that just from some guy calling me. I didn't go searching for a Pennsylvania connection, it just happened.”
On his irrigated fields, Ellis usually gets six alfalfa cuttings, beginning in mid-April.
“A lot of horse-loving folks buy from us. I guess 30 to 40 percent of our hay business is from weekend cowboys. There seem to be a lot of people with white-collar jobs who like to ride horses.”
Ellis expects to produce good crops this year. Even so, he expects this will be a season to escape, not brag about.
“I'm pretty sure I'm going to be short meeting my payment obligations. But while I may be a little short, other folks are going to be very short.”
Andrews has spoken with farmers who, by late June, had spent as much for fuel as they did all last year. “You can't find a place to cut corners. We're still five weeks from terminating irrigation on corn and weeks away from stopping on rice. Without rain, it's not going to get any easier. It's so dry, some producers can't keep water on parts of rice fields. It just evaporates or gets sucked up by the ground.”
Andrews believes some dryland corn fields will be abandoned. Some are “already done for. And dryland soybeans are in trouble if we don't get rain quickly — the next couple of weeks are absolutely critical. Without rain, combines won't run in some beans.
“The truth is, our irrigated beans aren't in great shape, either. Lots of irrigated soybeans have 60 percent stands, and producers are spot-planting.”
Ellis had more input costs in the current crop by the first of June than he had in the entire season last year. “That's unreal. Pumping water is expensive, fertilizer costs are 50 percent higher, diesel is 100 percent higher, seed costs went up. Everything — and I mean everything — went up. And then the drought hit. These are the years that make you ask yourself, ‘What am I doing in this business?’
“And I've had major trouble with insects this year, too. We've already sprayed for grasshoppers in soybeans — that's a first for us. The weeds are dying, and insects are moving into the crops.”
Even if crops achieve average yields — “and chances of that are slim at this point,” said Andrews — it won't be enough for many area growers. “The input costs are through the roof, and producers are telling me it's going to be hard to pay the note.”
It isn't just row crops, said Andrews. “We've got quite a few cattle ranchers in the county. The pastures have dried up, and ranchers are feeding hay already. We made half to two-thirds our norm on the first hay cutting. So we're short of hay and pastures. Everyone is suffering.”
Ellis fears few know the predicament of agriculture in northeast Arkansas. That's the main reason he's willing to speak with the press. “Do people know what's going on with this drought? Outside of farmers and Extension, I don't think many know the extent of this. If we don't get rain fast, we're staring down the barrel of a gun here, man.”