Thick in harvest season, grain trucks are roaring around the Delta carrying the year’s ample bounty. There is a bit of extra urgency to get the yields into storage as heavy, grey clouds are quickly rolling in. A few fat raindrops occasionally splash in the thick dust. The weather radar promises a large rain in the next few hours.
“Fall here is an amazing time. I love it,” says Robert Goodson, Arkansas’ Phillips County Extension agent. “It’s a time when all of this hard work comes together and it shows. The farmers here do a great, economical job and, after a year like this, everyone shares in an excitement. You know: ‘It worked. We did it.’”
The county’s farmland largely overcame a late, wet start to the growing season. In late May, Goodson told Delta Farm Press “Right now, we’re probably around 75 percent finished planting soybeans and a bit late. The corn was planted later than normal because it’s been so wet here. We still have producers trying to plant rice.
“Everything is late, actually -– probably at least a couple of weeks. But things have turned around and on a scale of one to 10, we’re at an eight. It’s not a disaster by any means.”
And Goodson’s belief has proven out. “I don’t think we have a record crop, but it’s close,” he says while standing in the turnrow of a heavily-bolled cotton field south of Marvell on Highway 1. “Overall, our soybean crop may be a bit better than last year. In 2013, the county average 52 bushels per acre. This year, we’ll get close to that -- maybe eke out a 54 or 55 bushel average. It seems there are a lot of 75- to 90-bushel soybeans being cut.”
Since late May, the rains arrived in a steady march throughout the summer. “Now, there were some fields that had to be irrigated four or five times. But there wasn’t the scenario where farms were putting out water nine or 10 times, like normal. The rains hit at opportune times.
“You want to know what’s really remarkable? Here at harvest, it’s turned off dry. Until this rain we’re about to have hits, we’ve had a string of dry conditions that’s allowed harvest to zoom.”
The county’s corn looks like it will hit around 190- to 200-bushel mark. “That’s a good crop,” says Goodman. “It’s a bit better than our five-year average.”
The area grain sorghum wasn’t quite a strong as it was in 2013. However, “we had 11,000 more acres of milo this year. Phillips County has 24 percent of the state’s grain sorghum crop, the most of any.”
And producers certainly weren’t spared the infestation of white sugarcane aphid that tormented many Mid-South fields. “We had a major blow-up of that aphid. It probably cost the farmers here $500,000. It costs $15 per acre to spray Transform for control and we sprayed 30,000 milo acres at least once. There was a Section 18 for Transform early and then, later, there was an extension -- a third spraying was allowed -- because the aphid problem was so severe.”
With 25,000 acres of rice, Phillips County is not a major rice county. Most of the rice harvest so far has been in the 180-bushel-per-acre range.
What about planting intentions for winter wheat?
“Currently, wheat prices are at less than $5. We have some producers that have planted some wheat. But with that price I don’t know we’ll have as much acreage as in 2013.
“If prices stay the same, I’m afraid it’ll be wall-to-wall soybeans here next year. That would be my prediction and that’s a big deal. Phillips County is already the largest soybean county in the state. We had 215,000 acres of soybeans this year. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see 240,000 acres in 2015.”
What about other pest problems throughout the year?
“Our cotton had tarnished plant bug. I doubt that will ever change. Our preliminary cotton yields right now are 2.5- to 2.9-bales to the acre. Our five-year average here is around 1,100 pounds. So, our producers are picking 200 to 400 pounds better than that average.”
While cotton acres in the county are down, Goodman says it’s worth noting that there was an uptick this year. “From 2013 to 2014, we went from 3,300 acres to 7,500 acres. That isn’t much, of course, when you consider we used to grow 120,000 acres.”
Agriculture operation improvements in the county are an indication what the future holds. “You can’t help but watch as new sets of bins are erected while cotton gins are closed. That’s where you know what the bottom line is. It would be hard for cotton to come back in a big way. That’s just the hard truth.”
As of October 2, Goodman estimates the county cotton is about 20 percent harvested, with soybeans around 60 percent harvested, grain sorghum is about 95 percent harvested along with 90 percent done with corn.
“We’re down to seven or eight cotton producers in the county. One gin literally closed down just yesterday in Marvell. Another area gin was disassembled, parts numbered and shipped to Mexico. The building is now standing empty.”
All the county cotton is now trucked to a gin up the road in Marianna where “all of the cotton in Lee County and Phillips County will be ginned. That’s a sign of the times. We’ve lost a lot with cotton acres diminishing, a lot of jobs that were associated with ginning.”
If there was a rise in cotton prices, could the needed infrastructure return?
“That’s the question everyone worries with. It’s hard to see how it could happen. It’s just seems it would be too expensive to get back in.
“A combine might cost me $450,000. But I can use it on corn, soybeans, whatever. At the same time, a $500,000 picker will only work in cotton. Obviously, that means there’s less flexibility and many farmers nowadays can’t afford to be tied down.”