Easter rains, flooding Water threatening Mid-South wheat

Easter and natural disasters are becoming too acquainted. Once again, final amens uttered, Mid-South farmers left Easter services to check on wheat fields.

Unlike last year's Easter freeze, however, this time rain and flooding is the problem. Nearly a week after torrential rains, fields remain underwater and crops threatened.

“Some wheat is going to be fine and some is going downhill,” says Jason Kelley, Arkansas Extension wheat specialist. “Originally, northeast Arkansas was hit — Clay, Randolph, Jackson, Independence counties. The White River is still flooded and hasn't crested around Des Arc and Clarendon. And it hasn't rained in a week! All that water has to move downhill, though, and that's why we have more wheat underwater now than we did shortly after the rains.”

By March 26, around Clarendon, Ark., the White River had risen 2 feet in 24 hours. If projections are correct, “that area will be 8 or 9 feet above flood stage all the way through the weekend.”

In the northern Bootheel, Jeff House, Missouri Extension agent in New Madrid, says anything on the Mississippi side of the levee “is gone. We're looking at a 40-foot-plus river level and the wheat has been drowned out. But on (the sheltered) side of the levee, we've largely escaped.”

Further south in the Bootheel — around Caruthersville — the wheat wasn't so lucky. On March 26, the river there was projected to reach 41 feet — 7 feet above flood stage.

“I was looking at a wheat field in Pemiscot County yesterday,” says Mike Milam, Dunklin County Extension agent. “Water had been standing on it for a while. The crop was yellowish and puny-looking. It's headed south, but if it can dry down quickly and get a shot of fertilizer, I wouldn't destroy it yet.”

Mississippi hasn't had the same flooding as Arkansas but the state isn't unscathed. Floodwater is on wheat in the Vicksburg area.

“The water backing up is particularly bad where rivers flow into the Mississippi,” says Erick Larson, Mississippi Extension wheat specialist. “We'll lose some wheat acres in those area. Where floods have been on fields for four or five days the wheat is likely to be in bad shape. And the water is still rising.”

The Mississippi wheat crop hasn't had the most favorable winter conditions for development. “It was very wet from early February through mid-March,” says Larson. “The soil saturation not only stunted wheat growth but often delayed nitrogen and herbicide applications.

“The fact that it's dried up when the crop is entering stem-elongation stages will be beneficial. However, the wet conditions we had earlier may have hurt tiller development and, as a result, reduce yield.”

Back in north central Arkansas, Randy Chlapecka has seen “a few thousand acres” of Jackson County wheat underwater. “It's pretty hairy around Newport,” says the Extension agent. “There's a lot of acreage in the lower White River bottoms that is completely underwater. The river level needs to reach 20 feet, or less, before all the acreage is water-free. (On March 27), the river is still at 28 feet. The wheat that's coming out from under the flood in undoubtedly hurt.”

The area will be weeks behind on planting river ground, says Chlapecka. “Without all this water, farmers would have been planting corn 10 days ago. They'd have been planting rice a few days ago.

“A lot of the double-crop plans will be scrapped because wheat will have to be destroyed. Of course, if there's any potential at all, the wheat fields will be kept because of the price and outstanding contracts. But some of this wheat — underwater for a week, or more — won't be worth keeping.”

Describing the initial, quick flooding as caused by “a wall of water,” Hank Chaney, Prairie County Extension agent, says the extent of damage to wheat will largely depend “on how quickly the water moves off. But from what we're hearing, that won't be anytime soon. Water will have to be released from lakes further north and the forecast is calling for more rain. So, we're not looking at a pretty scenario on the eastern side of the county.”

The flooding has already impacted planting decisions. Normally in Prairie County many farmers would have already planted grain sorghum. “Now, if it's into May before they can get into the fields, they'll shift to another crop because of heat and midge. And anyone wanting to plant rice is probably looking at a late planting. That means there will be even more pressure to plant soybeans and there's already no seed available.”

Kelley adds another worry to the pile: fulfilling contracts. “A lot of this wheat crop was already sold. Last year, when the freeze hit, some producers had already sold their wheat. They didn't have enough to fill contracts so they rolled them over to this year. Well, after these rains, you can see how easy it is to get into a bind. They don't have the wheat to fill those rolled-over contracts. I'm afraid this is going to put a crunch on some farmers.”

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