In the midst of drought, happiness is the smell of rain. But while gray rain clouds shelter southeast Arkansas cropland from the sun and occasionally drop a small shower, that isn't enough. With the cloud cover, soybeans have perked up, but large, deep soil cracks — some easily three fingers in width — betray the lack of moisture.
“Over the last few weeks, rain clouds have gone over this area frequently,” said John Gates in early July. “Some of my neighbors occasionally got a shower. I begrudge no one a rain. Believe me: anybody who gets a rain around here needs it. But on my land, it's been more miss than hit.
“Honestly, at the start of the season, I thought we were in line for another bumper crop,” said the Lake Village, Ark.-area producer. “Then, three or four weeks ago, the heat arrived with no rain. Some of our land hasn't had a rain in 40 days. We're irrigating like crazy, but that's not like a good, soaking rain.”
Having recently driven through Mississippi — and knowing the extreme drought conditions further north in Arkansas — Carl Hayden doesn't want to overplay southeast Arkansas' water problems. Then again, the Chicot County Extension agent said, a few more days without rain and the area's crops will be hard hit.
“In mid-May, we were in lovely shape around here,” said Hayden. “Our corn, cotton and soybean crops looked great. But since then, it's been hot and dry. The last rain was almost three weeks ago. I don't think anyone got more than half an inch.
“We're beginning to see burned spots in bean fields and wilting begins around mid-morning. Yields have already been hurt. But losses haven't been catastrophic yet. That could change if we don't get serious, prolonged rains soon. We're a couple of dry weeks — maybe less — away from real trouble here.”
Soybean planting in Chicot County began in late March.
“A big rain came through and kept us out of fields until about April 5,” said Hayden. “The largest part of our beans was planted by April 25.”
Even early, moisture was a problem for the area, and some producers weren't able to plant until later. “Some land was flooded to wet the ground enough to plant,” said Hayden. “That wasn't all bad. Since we didn't get the big rains early, this crop has a better than normal root system, and the crop has held up a lot better than it normally would in these conditions. It's amazing how good it looks, considering weather conditions — we've built up a healthy water deficit.”
So far, the area largely has been spared the late-season, dry-weather pest outbreaks seen elsewhere in Arkansas. Earlier this year, some soybean fields around Montrose, Ark., reached treatment levels for stink bugs, said Hayden.
“We thought, ‘Uh oh, here we go. Stink bugs are about to explode on us.’ But, so far, that hasn't happened. As far along as our Group 4 soybeans are, it's surprising stink bugs haven't built up more than they have. We were seeing stink bugs — especially adult browns — early in the season.”
Hayden has a “little bit of a theory” on what held down stink bug numbers. “We've got awful trouble with fire ants. They're everywhere. It's pure speculation, but I think fire ants may be feeding on stink bug eggs.”
Catfish, corn, rice
A decade ago, the catfish business was booming in Chicot County. But over the last three years or so, it's gone the other way “in a hurry,” said Hayden. Fish prices went down and so did land prices. Land once worth $2,600 per acre dropped, at one point, to $700 per acre, and the net worth of operations dropped dramatically.
“It hasn't been pretty. We've had producers go broke raising catfish. We have some soybeans and rice growing in fish ponds now. That's how far it's fallen, although prices are coming back up now.”
While catfish acres have dipped, corn acres have boomed.
“Ten years ago, we had, maybe, five or six producers growing any corn. Now, we've got between 20,000 acres and 25,000 corn acres in the county. It's making a big difference in our yields — the corn/bean rotation is doing well.”
Area rice looks decent, although temperatures stayed cold through mid-May. “That usually gives producers a little difficulty getting a rice crop up and growing well. That's particularly true if they have to flush when it's cold. Of course, those conditions have made weed control much more difficult. We've had some problems getting the crop up and some thin spots. Producers have gotten the weeds cleaned up, but they've spent more money getting it done.”
As in farming communities across the nation, input costs are a major concern. Pumping costs, said Gates, “are killing farmers. Diesel at $2-plus is no joke.”
Input costs are hurting everyone, said Gates. “Counting fertilizer and everything else, I already have over $100 per acre in the corn. Think about that: even if we end up with a decent crop, we won't make much money. There's no telling what the rice crop is costing farmers. A couple of days ago, urea was at $340 per ton.”
Dry weather and irrigation have led to “some problems with surface water sources dropping,” said Hayden. “Streams and bayous are being pumped hard. I guess 70 percent of our beans are irrigated, 80-plus percent of the cotton is irrigated and most of the corn is irrigated. The problem isn't the lack of fields (set up for irrigation), it's the lack of water itself.
“Some producers are having trouble even getting rice fields pumped up, and they can't switch water over to beans. It's like dominoes falling — one thing affects the next.”
Chicot County has a large area — probably 50,000 acres — with salt water problems. Most wells there normally are not used.
“Producers there use surface water, or they have put their land into WRP or catfish ponds,” said Hayden. “But in a situation like now — when surface water is being pumped down — they have to use those salty wells. Most of them run the salty water through a system of ditches to lessen the salt content. That's what they're being forced to do.”
Along with a crew from the University of Arkansas-Monticello, Hayden regularly checks the county's two Asian soybean rust sentinel plots. The plots were planted March 23.
“We check the plots at least three times a week,” said Hayden, while scouting some rapidly maturing Group 2 soybeans. “We also pull slides from a spore trap next to a weather station.”
It won't be long before beans in Chicot County are past the threat of Asian soybean rust. Farmers are more worried about a lack of rain than rust.
“But if rust shows up in Louisiana and moves north, our sentinel plots should be the tripwire in Arkansas. Heck, this is right on the Louisiana line.”
Saving a crop
On his 2,300 acres of row crops, Gates grows corn and soybeans. He'd raise cotton and rice “if the price ever gets right again.”
Surveying some soybeans with leaves beginning to curl in the heat, Gates said the situation could be worse. “I approach every year expecting a good crop. This crop won't make what we need. I don't think it'll be a total disaster, but that's cold comfort. I expect to make 45 to 55 bushels on soybeans every year and at least 140 to 160 bushels of corn.”
The last weeks of near-constant watering has taken a toll on Gates and his crew. “We're all tired of watering, everybody's dragging. Doing this for weeks on end — going from field to field just watering and worrying — wears on you. And there doesn't seem to be any end in sight.”
Gates has watered his soybeans two or three times and his corn at least six times. Without rain, some fields will need several more irrigations.
“Over the last month, the weather has turned on us. But one thing about farmers: we won't give up. We'll struggle with a crop until there is absolutely no hope. Sometimes we'll keep going whether there's hope or not. It's just something we do. Maybe that sort of optimism is bred into us.”