The wind has picked up and the water covering Nolan Bower's soybeans is white-capping. As his retrievers splash happily in the field, nipping at bean pods barely above the waterline, a menacing group of thunderheads moves in from the west.
If the bottom falls out, Bowers and his son, Trey, will hustle to their 500,000-bushel capacity bins and fire up the backhoe. Right now, the floodwaters are still a few feet from the bins but another inch or two of rain — to go with the 14 inches dumped here six days earlier — will necessitate building a levee and pumping the area.
“Ain't this a kick in the head?” says Bowers, surveying thousands of submerged row-crop acres southeast of Corning, Ark., near the Missouri border. “Drought, fuel prices, fertilizer prices and, now, a flood. It's just one bad thing after another. This year, no one escapes.”
Watching the radar
As early as Sept. 21 farmers in northeast Arkansas and the Missouri Bootheel knew a storm system was approaching. In anticipation of a wet few days, many picked up the harvesting pace. No one had any idea up to 18 inches of rain would fall over the next two days and overwhelm drainage ditches and rivers.
“There have to be thousands and thousands of acres still flooded,” says Truman Moore, who farms 2,500 acres in northeast Arkansas' Clay County. “I'm driving through some water trying to check some of my crops right now. This will be devastating for us — at least half my acres are flooded. Around here, at least 50 percent of the rice and 95 percent of the soybeans are left in the field. A lot of farmers have crops under 6 or 7 feet of water.”
Missouri agriculture officials say besides displacing numerous Bootheel residents in four counties, the floods cut crop yields up to 30 percent. During a tour of the flooded counties, Fred Ferrell, director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture, said the visit was akin to attending “a funeral.”
Having already received reports of seeds sprouting in bolls, Mike Milam is concerned for the Bootheel cotton crop.
“Boll rot is a concern,” says the Missouri Extension agent. And if farmers pick cotton with sprouted seeds, “it could get green stains on the fiber. We don't need more rain slowing the harvest even more.”
Drive through the flooded country and the smell of souring soybeans is evident.
“That's from the leaves of the greener soybeans,” says Andy Vangilder, Clay County Extension agent. “And it isn't a good sign. Sometimes we worry about the more mature beans sprouting and swelling if the water stays on too long. But greener beans begin to rot, too. If the water doesn't get off quickly, the beans will have severe damage.”
Dick Bell, director of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture, is well aware of the situation. “I've heard the crops — particularly in Clay County up into Stoddard County in the Bootheel — are in a mess. Those are the two words I've heard most to describe it: a mess.
“People who have handled situations like this before say the faster they can harvest the rice, the less impact on yields. Maybe the losses won't be overwhelming. But there's the threat of sprout damage before it's harvested. That can happen very quickly.”
Rice has already begun sprouting, says Vangilder. “It's pipping — little white hairs are sticking out. When we flooded in 1998, (the same thing occurred) and farmers tell me when the rice dried, they were able to market it. But the milling was off.
“A lot of the rice has fallen. When that happens in floodwaters, a large percentage of it will sprout.
“I'm going by a rice field right now. It was standing well until this storm hit. The farmer is trying to harvest it and pick it up before it sprouts. He's got a stripper-header that's able to pick the crop up a little better.”
While cautioning that the figures are preliminary and conservative, Ron Baker, Clay County Extension agent, says farmers claim to have lost from 5 percent to 100 percent of their crops.
“The best estimates we have show 20 to 25 percent of the soybean crop — right at 122,000 acres — has been severely damaged or completely ruined,” says Baker. “A larger percentage than that, of course, will show yield loss. So you're talking about well over 25,000 acres that have been hit badly.
As for rice, “we've got just under 80,000 acres. We figure 10 to 14 percent of that is badly damaged or lost. Between what was lost from shattering and what was inundated, about 8,000 acres are hurt badly.”
Cotton, at 41,000 acres, is mostly on the east side of the county. Vangilder believes 5 to 10 percent has been lost.
Most of Clay County's corn had been harvested before the rains. But there's still around 1,500 acres to be harvested. A third of that has been ruined.
Baker also has heard of rice sprouting. “This is the fifth full day of flooding, so I'm not surprised to hear of rice sprouting. Three to five days, especially in cooler weather like we've had, isn't as devastating as in warmer weather. Pass five days of flooding, though, and the chances of that jump — even in cool conditions.”
With 60 percent of the rice crop harvested in the county, soybeans are most in jeopardy.
“Other than a few, isolated fields, none of our soybeans had been harvested,” says Baker. “Some 98 percent, or better, of the crop is still out. This flooding will hurt the soybean crop worse than anything else.”
Rick Davidson has 100 acres of soybeans “you could drown in. My neighbor has about 800 acres in the same shape.”
The farmer says his northeast Arkansas community of Stonewall, is “devastated — this flood cleaned our plow. The Cache River is still rising and has pushed over our little community. Roads that had just been fixed are now torn up. Land around the Cache Lake is flooded higher than I've seen in a long, long time.”
While water has drained off the crops on high ground, “everyone in the Cache River basin is still flooded — if you fly over it, it looks like a huge lake. There are going to be severe losses. Just about everything east of Cache River is a lost cause. Everyone in that area is trying to pump water off. If a farmer doesn't have levees and pumps, it's really bleak.”
The flood has only added to farmers' stress levels.
“Farming wasn't great before this hit,” says Davidson. “Now, the pressure just increased. I guess some of the fallout is understandable. Lots of folks are getting hacked off at their neighbors. You know, one farmer is pumping water onto someone else. There are disputes everywhere. It's a mess.”
Jerry Turner, who farms outside Corning, Ark., has lived in the area his whole life.
“We've had floods, but overall, I've never seen anything like this. We're on the edge of the Ozark Mountains. When the floodwaters come they hit the lower ground. But this time the flood has covered higher ground.”
Like others, Turner especially fears for the soybean crop.
“We farm on some higher ground. But in this type of rain, that doesn't matter. There's so much water it's taking too long to run off. I'm guessing 50 percent of the beans, or more, will be hurt big-time. They may not be a complete loss, but for all practical purposes, they're finished. And I'm not the worst hit. There are plenty of farmers in worse shape than me.”
Roger Gibson, who works northeast Arkansas for Pioneer, says there are “plenty” of fields with water 10 feet deep.
“I think there will be significant losses all over the area. Down towards Pocahontas, Ark., where the Current River and Black River converge, there will be a huge crop loss. That's into Randolph County.”
Gibson says in the best case scenario, it will be up to two weeks before farmers can get back in the flooded fields.
“Ditches are so full of water you can look back for 2 miles and see nothing but a sheet of water. All of that has to work its way south. It won't be a quick, come-up-come-down scenario. A lot of it is bottlenecked, and it's going to take a while.”
Gibson worries the flood could finish many of his farming friends.
“This may be the killing blow for some folks. It'll be a significant hit for everyone — even those who weren't already under financial stress. This flood compounds farming's problems, and it's very depressing.”
Over 36 hours, 14 inches of rain fell on the Bowers' land. About 4,000 of his soybean acres will be underwater until at least Oct. 1.
“I'm not an exception. The whole community is hurting and I'm sure only a (fraction) of the beans around here will be harvested. Even in spots where water isn't completely covering all the fields, it's still coming up. We're losing ground. I have one re-lift and we'll have to shut it off because the water is too deep.”
Like others, prior to the flood, the Bowers had a “beautiful bean crop — 50-bushel beans ready to cut,” says Trey. “We were going to get started on those 4,000 acres on (Sept. 23, when the bulk of the rain fell). We wanted to get our rice out and our last 45 acres of corn. It didn't work out.”
All season, Clay County farmers felt lucky, says Vangilder.
“Compared to everywhere else in the state and Mid-South — with the drought burning things up — Clay County was the garden spot. We got timely rains from July on. Now, we just got dragged back into the pack. Everyone is miserable.”
Last year “took out” a bunch of farmers, says Vangilder. He predicts this year will be more of the same.
“I know a lot of farmers who needed this crop to stay in farming. I want to be optimistic, but it's hard when you don't hear about much help coming. Farmers need disaster assistance and it isn't coming. Someone needs to step up to the plate.”