Drought, Flooding Cause Hard Times for Farmers in Arkansas, Louisiana

October 20, 2011

In a year when severe drought scorched the Southwest, a hurricane drowned crops in the East, and river flooding swamped farms in the Midwest, one of the worst places to be a farmer may be just west of the Mississippi River.

Not only have Arkansas and Louisiana experienced both drought and flooding, but in some cases, so have individual farmers in those states. The cost of the bad weather could reach $1 billion.

Jerry Gill estimated he lost $100,000. Flooding submerged the 150 acres where he usually plants corn and soybeans about 150 miles northwest of Little Rock. Then the drought dried up the pastures his cattle graze. At one point, Gill resorted to running a hose from his house so the skinny animals would have enough to drink.

“It’s tough to grow anything when the temperature’s 114,” said Gill, 64, of Kibler.

Flooding alone caused more than $500 million in losses in Arkansas, and tallies from the drought and other bouts of bad weather aren’t available yet, the state’s farm bureau said. In Louisiana, flooding and drought resulted in an estimated $440 million in losses and increased production costs, according to the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center.

Photo courtesy of FEMA

The damage is significant given that the two states typically produce more than 60 percent of the nation’s rice. Arkansas, the nation’s leading rice grower, lost about 300,000 acres this year to flooding, mostly from rivers. That’s about 10 percent of the total U.S. production, the farm bureau said.

All of the two states were declared primary agricultural disaster areas. The only other state designated as such was tiny Rhode Island, whose farmers were swamped by Tropical Storm Irene. In other states, some counties were declared primary disaster areas and then neighboring counties also got benefits.

In a letter to Arkansas’ governor, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack noted the state had been hit by one thing after the next, including “hail, high winds, flooding, widespread drought, and excessive heat.” Louisiana suffered much of the same — plus Tropical Storm Lee.

James Bingham knows about hard times. Water from the St. Francis floodway wiped out more than 1,200 of the 1,700 acres of rice, soybeans and corn he’d planted near Payneway, Ark., and in surrounding Poinsett County.

He managed to salvage about 100 acres of rice and 400 acres of corn and then planted 2,300 acres of soybeans since it was too late to grow anything else. Temperatures soared into the 90s, and within weeks, he was struggling to keep his fields irrigated.

“We couldn’t keep it wet,” said Bingham, 66. “We’d just water it, turn around and water it again.”

Extra watering kept his soybeans going, but saving what was left of his rice was a fight. The crop needs to be covered with about 2 inches of water to grow well, and Bingham and other farmers rang up hefty water bills as they tried to keep the plants sated.

“It’s probably the most expensive crop that any of us have ever raised,” he said.

Jeff Rutledge, a farmer in Newport, Ark., agreed. He said he borrowed more money than ever before after flooding and drought devastated hundreds of acres of his 3,500-acre farm.

“This is the most expensive year I’ve had,” he said. “All the extra watering we had to do, the replanting, the spraying (for insects), the increased fuel costs.”

Flooding from the White and Cache rivers ruined 700 acres of his rice and grain sorghum this spring. He saved about 200 acres of rice and replanted another 500 acres — plus soybeans. When the drought struck, the 37-year-old had to shell out for more water to keep his plants from withering in the relentless heat.

He’s harvesting his rice now and said it doesn’t look like the effort was worth it. He’s counting on the soybeans he’ll harvest in the coming weeks to save him from some of his debt.

“If we were depending upon our rice crop, we’d be in trouble,” Rutledge said.

Ted Glaser, 64, didn’t do much better with corn and soybeans. He lost 1,000 acres in May when the Morganza spillway, which diverts water from the Mississippi River, flooded. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the spillway after snow melt and rain sent a torrent of water into the river.

But elsewhere on his 3,300 acres near Oscar, La., Glaser fought drought and severe heat.

“One side of the levee was flooded,” he said. “And everything outside the spillway was burning up.”

Some soybeans never came up and “what came up burnt,” he said. He figures he’ll be lucky to get 35 bushels an acre this year, when he usually gets 60.

Back in Arkansas, Gill never planted soybeans after heavy rain and flooding drowned the corn he put in the ground and left his fields looking like the deep end of a swimming pool.

“Then, from one day to the next, the rain shut off and there was no more,” he said.

In two months, June and July, less than an inch of rain fell Fort Smith, the closest place where precise records are kept, the National Weather Service said. The only thing in Gill’s fields now are fuzzy green caterpillars, beetles and waist-high weeds.

“None of which there’s a market for,” Gill said.

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