It's been an ugly growing season for Arkansas truck farmers. Today is no different. The sky is heavy with ominous, slate-gray clouds hiding the sun and floating a spritz of moisture earthward. Here, in the last week of July, the noon-time temperature is a mere 70 degrees. In the distance, a farm crew bobs slowly up and down in a purple-hull pea plot. They'll be lucky to harvest a quarter of the normal yield.
Around Grady, Ark., about 20 miles south of Pine Bluff, it began raining in June and rarely stopped.
“We had 21 days of rain in June alone. People who have lived around here for 60 or 70 years say they've never seen anything like it,” says Abraham Carpenter Jr., whose family farms 1,000 acres of vegetables outside town.
“During June, when it got light enough every morning, I'd walk to the window, look out and see cloudy skies again and just want to cry. There was no letup…. We've done everything we know to do. When that's the case, and things like this weather still happen, you just shrug your shoulders and leave it in God's hands.”
It's estimated this season's rains have ruined up to half the state's $25 million vegetable crop. At least $8 million has been lost in the tomato crop alone.
Asked if the Carpenters' situation is typical for truck farms he's worked with this year, Henry English nods yes. “They've got more acres, but the story is pretty much the same,” says the director of the Small Farm Program at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. “Unfortunately, there just aren't any happy anecdotes to relay.”
“You know, I've been reading stories about how marketers and other experts have been saying things are okay around the Delta,” says Carpenter. “That may be true in other places, but farmers around here aren't saying that. And it isn't just truck crops. I have never, in my life, seen as many people in such a bad way. And many of these folks hurting you'd think would be in decent shape.”
The Carpenter operation is run from a handful of modest homes at the edge of the family's acreage. Some 30 family members work the farm and several vegetable stands in Pine Bluff and Little Rock.
“It takes a lot of money to support everyone and keep the farm running,” says Abraham. “All the money we make is put back into the businesses and farm — every dime possible. That's one of the reasons it was so disappointing we didn't get the spring crops to come off like we needed.
“We spent over $250,000 just getting planted in February and March, buying seed and chemicals. For that amount, we were hoping to get a net return between $300,000 and $400,000. Instead, we got nothing, zip.”
The Carpenter's first crops of greens, squash, lettuce, purple-hull peas and green beans were all lost. This was disastrous, because from those first crops, “we normally get the money to finish out planting sweet potatoes and fall crops.”
The greens went first. After a week of constant rain, they began turning yellow and dying out — 100 acres down the drain.
Thirty acres of squash went next. Losing the squash was a tremendous blow because the crop had looked good: the plants were loaded. Carpenter says the operation would have gotten 1,000 boxes just on the first picking.
“We ordered $8,000 worth of squash boxes because our squash was just about ready — just a few days away. Actually, all the early crops were on the verge of being ready. Then the rains hit and it looked like someone had taken a giant kettle of boiling water and poured it all over our fields. The crops looked melted down.”
Despite misgivings, the Carpenters tried to salvage some squash. As suspected, it didn't work — squash that gets too much rain gets water-logged.
“We had to credit everyone we sold to because by the time we got the squash to their stores, the squash had ‘blown up.’ Water was running out of the boxes.”
One of the largest sweet potato farmers in the state — “we're one of the top three for sure” — the Carpenters normally expect to harvest around 600 bushels to the acre. If it continues to rain, though, they may not harvest 100 bushels this year.
“In some of our fields, we may not even get that,” says Abraham. “We're normally able to get in and pull weeds, baby our crops. We haven't been able to get in fields period. I've got to believe that Louisiana's sweet potato crop is behind, too. With all the rain they've had down there, I don't see how they could have planted all their acreage on time.”
While driving around the operation, Carpenter points to an extremely weedy, patchy, non-uniform field of struggling plants often not 6 inches tall. The middles are muddy and dotted with deep deer tracks.
“These sweet potatoes should almost be ready for harvest,” he says. “These are some of the first we planted. Most of the plants haven't even lapped the middles. And look at the weeds! We couldn't get in the fields to deal with weeds, and they've outraced us. We sprayed herbicides three times and look at it.
“It's depressing when you think about how we've fertilized twice, plowed the middles repeatedly, sprayed herbicides and that's the result. With diesel costs and whatnot, cost of production is already up 30 percent. This is going to be hard — if not impossible — to overcome.”
Replant, replant again
When the first crops failed, there was no choice but to replant. With Wal-Mart and several large grocery chains among their customers, many were relying on the Carpenters to supply vegetables.
“So we jumped right in, replanted everything and got decent stands. Some of the crops we had to replant again because big rains caught us right after the seeds were dropped. So some of the fields you see now have been planted three times this season.”
The Carpenters plant expensive seed because they want to keep repeat customers. For example, their squash seed costs $80 per pound. Squash seed can be bought for $2 per pound, but that's not what builds a customer base.
“We grow hybrid vegetables that hold up better and look better — that draws in customers and brings them back. When you start buying those kinds of seed, though, it doesn't take long to run up a bill of $250,000.”
The Carpenters will harvest at least some of the replanted crops. The problem with replanted crops is they often miss the high-dollar market. And the rains are still a looming problem.
“If we get a few more days of rain, it'll ruin the latest plantings. We're on a knife's edge — if the replanted crop doesn't turn out we'll be out $1 million. That'll wipe us out. Even if we get disaster aid, I don't know if we'll be able to recover.”
On July 20, Rep. Mike Ross, a Democrat, introduced a bill for such disaster aid. The bill's passage is not assured.
“We appreciate everything (Ross) has done,” says Carpenter. “But with the (Iraq) war and (federal) deficit, things are tight. I hope they find some money to shake loose. You know, the war is one thing, but we need to make sure our domestic affairs are in order, too. It doesn't matter what political party you belong to — everyone still needs to eat and have clothes to wear. You can't do either without farmers. If the farmers fail, the whole economy will fall apart. Too many people have forgotten that.”
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