Flooding, cold hit Arkansas crops

While floodwaters recede from Arkansas fields and race south, they leave behind waterlogged farm acreage in need of new seed and sunshine. Rivers across eastern Arkansas — swollen from steady, heavy Midwest rains — have pushed over their banks, drowning riverside crops and adding misery to an already shaky growing season.

“We have 18,000 to 20,000 acres inside the levee. That's a nice chunk of real estate that's flooded,” says Steve Rodery, Arkansas Extension agent in Crittenden County.

Not all of it was planted when the floodwaters hit. It's strictly a guess, but Rodery says probably around a third had been planted — perhaps up to 40 percent.

The early rains and an inability to plant due to wet fields may have saved farmers money in replanting, says Rodery. “If we're going to see a silver lining, maybe that's it. Whatever was planted is gone now, though.”

Crittenden County farmers look for a rise in the Mississippi River every year around late April to early May. The question is how much of a rise it'll be.

“This year, the steady rains have kept us out of fields all over the county, though, not just inside the levee. The waters are receding slowly. If we don't get more rains across the Ohio River Valley, we should escape even tougher conditions.”

Rodery doesn't want a rapid river fall. How fast water falls can make or break a field situation, he says. A fast fall can leave gullies in the fields. A slower fall — “which looks to be what we're getting” — isn't quite as damaging to a field's surface. Regardless, in the flood's aftermath, there will be plenty of logs and debris to clean up.

In Craighead County, Ark., the Cache River has affected a few thousand acres.

“The Cache River is backed up, although it's now going down. Of the acres hit, probably 70 percent were planted, mostly in rice. I've spoken to several farmers who are now going to plant soybeans on at least part of that acreage,” says Eric Grant, Craighead County Extension agent.

Grant says it could be a problem if floodwaters fall and farmers then find washes in their fields. “That would require not only replanting, but having to till, too. And we're into June! It's getting late, and anyone planting rice is likely going to look close at alternatives.”

For rice, it's already time for a pre-flood shot of fertilizer and for flooding (the intentional sort). But it's too wet for the fertilizer and too wet to pull levees around the crop.

“We're just way behind and it's liable to get worse,” says Grant.

Regarding flooding, Poinsett County, Ark., is okay except off the floodway around Marked Tree, says Extension agent Rick Thompson. A few farmers have a couple thousand acres still under water.

“I guess most of the acreage had been planted because farmers here plant early or they don't plant at all. We're waiting for warm weather to arrive. We've had temperatures in the lower 40s. Rice won't grow unless it's 50 degrees, so we had rice going backwards on us,” says Thompson.

Although the rice is “sick,” it can handle cold better than cotton can. The county's cotton is pitiful, says Thompson. Farmers have done a lot of replanting. Cotton seedling diseases are “everywhere,” he says.

Clay County, Ark., looks even worse, says Extension agent Andy Vangilder. “The worst flooding damage we have is located in the northwestern part of the county — west of Corning. The Black, the Little Black and several other rivers have all been out of their banks for a while. The last time I was over there it looked like a lake. The water came off about two days ago (May 28). We lost some acreage of corn and rice that went under. Some of the rice came back, but other fields have died.”

Additional flooding around the St. Francis River has kept farmers from planting. The general conditions are terrible, says Vangilder. The tremendous rainfall has taken out low ends of fields, potholes are everywhere, and fields are washing.

“In northeast Arkansas, we can plant early-maturing rice until June 10. If — and this is a big if — the fields dry down, we could still see some rice being planted or replanted.”

But as bad as the rice looks, Vangilder is most concerned about the area's cotton. “Our cotton crop is the worst I've ever seen, and I've been an agent for 21 years. Cotton farmers who have farmed for 40-plus years say they've never seen sorrier cotton. Over the last couple of weeks, I've walked acres and acres of cotton, and it's the saddest mess I've ever seen. Hopefully, we'll salvage something, but right now it's looking dicey.”

The 40-degree nights, the rains and the winds have beaten the cotton crop up, says Vangilder. Conservatively, he thinks farmers in the county have replanted 30 percent of the crop.

“But, in truth, I think we've probably replanted 40 percent. I was estimating 8,000 acres were replanted, but ASCS people say farmers are telling them it's way over that. Some of our growers who plant around 3,000 acres have already replanted nearly 2,000 of that.

“On top of all this, we've got cotton that was hit with 5 to 6 inches of rain on the night of May 25. We're still waiting to see if it'll pull out of that.”

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