Northeast Arkansas crops remain underwater in late August Photo courtesy of Dustin Geurin and pilot Blake Propst

Northeast Arkansas crops remain underwater in late August. Photo courtesy of Dustin Geurin and pilot Blake Propst.

Severe northeast Arkansas flooding largely under the radar

Massive rains followed by flooding leaves many northeast Arkansas producers with losses. Soybeans, rice hit hard.

It began raining Friday night, August 12, and carried on the entire weekend. The area of northeast Arkansas in Lawrence County – around Cord and Lynn – was soon saturated.

When Jerry Morgan arrived at church Sunday morning, fat raindrops were pelting the roof. Final prayers uttered, Morgan walked out and began paying close attention to Corps of Engineer reports. Of special importance: when river levels were expected to rise enough to cover the family’s cropland. Reports said the land was supposed to be safe until Monday.

At 6:00 p.m. Sunday evening it was time for Bible study. The rain hadn’t let up and would eventually dump around 15 inches on the region.

“I walked in the church, walked straight over to my brother and said, ‘Danny, we’ve got to go,” says Morgan. “’My gut tells me we don’t have until the morning.’ So, we walked out and worked all night – we had to get the power units and pumps out.

“My brother, my son, my nephews and my son-in-law started out at Powhatan, pulling the first power unit. We got that out and didn’t get 100 yards down the road before we ran into water. We drove in water – up to the running boards -- to the next power unit 1.5 miles down the gravel road.”  

Understand, says Morgan, the water was “all rainwater. The river hadn’t backed out yet. All that water was from 48 hours of straight rain, and it was just getting started.”

It rained for another six days.

Hardest year

It’s now a week into September, and Morgan says the area remains “in the midst of a catastrophic event and it’s going to take some farm families out. That’s the bottom line. I’ve spoken with farmers from all over the region and the magnitude of this flooding on top of a poor ag economy is going to push some out of farming – some of them from families who’ve been farming for four or five generations.”

And this is the second flood of the year.

“It’s been the hardest year anyone remembers. During the spring, we had our upper farm (near Powhatan) completely planted, half the middle farm (near Lynn) planted, and all the rice planted on lower farm (near Cord). Then, on May 12, the Black River came out and stayed out for over a month.”

Morgan and family members were able to get back into the fields on June 19 to start replanting soybeans. At that point, “some of the rice was lying flat on the ground and needed to reboot. The hybrid rice actually did a lot better at that than conventional.

“Well, we did what was necessary and the crops were late but looked good. We were headed for a good harvest until the August rains, and overflow, came in. I’ve been out walking fields and the bean plants don’t have beans anymore, just stems.”

Morgan is a fourth-generation farmer. “We’re not big-time, just three families that pitch in together when and where needed. We’re proud to farm. I used to look out the back door and watch Daddy and Pappaw plowing with a team of mules. I knew farming is what I wanted to do.”

All told, Morgan and family now farm about 4,400 acres along the Strawberry and Black rivers.

Serious trouble

Morgan is keen not to be viewed as downplaying the severity of recent floods in Louisiana.

“We just need people to know these late-season floods have hit this region. That isn’t to diminish the fact the Louisiana floods were horrible, as bad as it gets, and our hearts go out those poor folks. It’s terrible that homes were lost and farmland was devastated.

“But we’re in serious trouble around here, as well. Personally, we’ll probably harvest around 1,200 acres out of 4,400.”

Morgan isn’t interested in being front-and-center for this story, “but if you don’t speak up, folks might not know to help. Take a look at the pictures from around here. They tell the story, as well. It looks like what happened in Louisiana minus all the houses.”

This is farming country and farmers are on the front line of the ongoing catastrophe. Farmers “know what’s coming economically. Folks in other careers are starting to feel the pain, as well.

“I’ll give you an example: we had a combine in the shop for a tune-up, they’d called and given me a check list. The rain hit and as soon as we saw what was happening, I had to call them and say, ‘fellows, I need y’all to stop the work and pull the combine out of the shop.’ So, that hurt them but what are we supposed to do?

“Think about the consultants, the custom sprayers, the equipment dealers and all the rest who are losing money. In the May floods, Dustin (Guerin, Morgan’s son-in-law) lost 900 acres of rice. It was completely destroyed and couldn’t be replanted. That meant the flying service lost a large billing because they couldn’t work it. It’s a trickle-down effect.”

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What about crop insurance?

“There’s a conception, especially in the public, that crop insurance is the same as for a car or home. Well, the APH (Actual Production History) figures in to, say, a 75 to 85 percent policy.

“For example, say I’m farming with an APH of 40 bushels to the acre. At the same time, I’m renting the farm and paying out 25 percent rent and 100 percent of the inputs. So, 10 bushels is going to the landlord and that leaves 30 bushels that I’ll get 70 percent of. That means the insurance will figure on 21 bushels at $8.86 per bushel. And that’s only if you don’t hit the APH number, which can be hard to do.”

Anyone involved in agriculture “knows that won’t pay for the production costs never mind an equipment or land payment. Rice is at $4 a bushel and by the time you get it cut, dried and hauled to the market, it’s in the $3 range.” 

The farm bill and crop insurance may be great for the rest of the country, says Morgan. “But it doesn’t work so well for folks around the Delta. For us, it’s just a band-aid.”  

Low-interest loans not enough

Lawmakers and staff the family has spoken with are sympathetic “but there’s not much they can do, I guess. They point to low-interest loans but those aren’t going to cut it. If Congress is going to help us, I’m afraid it’ll have to be by somehow folding us in with the Louisiana flooding. We’re too small to garner much attention.

“We aren’t looking for a handout. Until the last couple of weeks, I never called any of our delegation asking for help in a disaster. We sucked it up and went on.

“But this flood we can’t withstand. I admit almost calling them last planting season. We were at June 19 and thinking ‘We’ve got to get this crop in the ground now.’ I’ve heard the specialists like everyone else – every day past June 15 the crop loses X amount of yield. So, we were in a severe situation even then.”

In the last couple days, Morgan has been in rice fields that were flooded. “I’ve pulled some heads. Some of the kernels are turning black.

“We had rice planted early April that came back after the first flood. So, we’ve got rice that’s knee-high and rice that’s chest-high. It’s a mess but we’ll try to make it work, stay resilient.”

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