Editor’s note: Comments from ag specialists and other research for this story were gathered prior to July 23.
Arkansas farmers faced a gauntlet of problems as the 2022 planting season began. Input costs including diesel and fertilizer prices were at record highs, but commodity prices, especially for corn and soybeans, were higher and provided some glimmers of hope.
The weather during the spring was slightly wetter than usual, but otherwise mostly cooperative. Then, at the start of June, the merciless sun took over the Arkansas Delta and most parts of the state. Parts of the Delta region experienced a June and July with no rain and other parts received precious little water. Temperatures routinely topped 100 degrees forcing row crop farmers to irrigate fields which in turn caused input costs to spiral higher. Nighttime lows often remained in the 70s which negatively impacts plant growth.
Many hay fields used to feed cattle herds dried up. Cattle farmers who couldn’t afford to feed their cattle grain were forced to sell to avoid even deeper financial losses.
The bleak weather is on the verge of setting all-time records in terms of heat and lack of rain, National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologist Katie Dedeaux told Talk Business & Politics. Regional temperatures and precipitation varied slightly during the last several months, but it’s the hottest summer since 1980, she said. June and July were only three-tenths of a degree away from being the hottest ever recorded in Memphis which sits in the heart of the Delta area and its vast row crop fields, she said. And the long-term data suggests the hot, dry weather could linger into the harvest season.
“We had a ridge of high pressure that set in in early June and hasn’t moved much. It’s a typical summertime pattern for high pressure to set it. Sometimes it’s a little farther west or east, but this ridge hasn’t moved a lot,” she said.
The lack of rain has a “snowball” impact on temperatures, she said. When the sun rises it takes it longer to heat the ground and air if water is present, she said. When there is no water, the ground heats quicker, causing the temperatures to soar higher, she said.
For the year, the city of Memphis is down almost two inches of rain, a nearly 40% drop from normal, according to the NWS. Cities and towns in the Delta, including Jonesboro, have been in similar droughts. Dedeaux said the spring was wetter than usual, meaning the drought during the last two months has been even worse than the year-to-date numbers would indicate.
“It’s a cycle. It’s a really bad cycle right now,” she said.
Long-term data indicates that temperatures will remain above average through the first few weeks of August and that could extend as far as October according to the models meteorologists are using, she said. Some of the data indicates that early August could receive higher than normal rain amounts in the region but there is a caveat. Rain on average is typically sparse in the region during August which means a slight uptick may not equate to much more water falling from the sky.
If rains don’t come soon, the Natural State’s largest economic sector could be in trouble. Kevin Lawson, the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension’s director for the 25-county Ozark District, said cattle farmers face grim prospects. His district sits in the heart of Arkansas’ cattle producing region. The National Agricultural Statistics Service’s (NASS) weekly crop report indicates that 43% of pastures are in poor or very poor condition.
“We’re on the edge of a disaster,” he said.
It may take longer to determine the impacts to row crop farmers, but there’s no doubt it will be significant. Dry weather and collapsing prices are expected to hit cotton farmers especially hard, said University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture Scott Stiles. The U.S. Department of Agriculture in late July reduced its cotton acres estimate nationwide by 32% (590,000 acres). Cotton had traded in the $1.30 per pound range at its peak earlier this year, but has dropped to 86 cents.
“This massive 47-cent pullback in cotton prices is hard to rationalize with the U.S. crop getting smaller,” Stiles said. “A further reduction in crop size can’t be ruled out in the coming months. With heavy investments being made in irrigation and insect management right now, this price collapse couldn’t come at a worse time. Assuming an average yield for the state of 1,250 pounds per acre, we’ve lost over $585 per acre in market value over the past two months. Given the weather uncertainty surrounding this year’s crop, a price collapse of this magnitude was not expected.”
NASS reported in July that 10% of the state’s soybean crop is classified as either poor or in very poor condition. Stiles said if the statistic is accurate, it means 320,000 soybean acres are in this condition.
“Water’s getting tight,” said Jeremy Ross, extension soybean agronomist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. “Corn is at the reproductive stage, farmers are trying to get rice flooded and irrigation to cotton and soybeans, we’re spreading it pretty thin already. It’s just a struggle on where we need to pump.”
Jarrod Hardke, extension rice agronomist for the Division of Agriculture, said farmers will have to decide if they want to flood their rice fields or use that water for other crops. In a typical growing season, it can take up to 10 days for fields to become flooded. This year it can take up to 21 days which is a significant difference.
“The dynamic here becomes a multi-crop issue. What do we do when it’s this dry? Decisions have to be made. Do you have the water and the pumping capacity to move over and irrigate soybeans as opposed to keeping water on your rice? We were at this stage a week ago and it’s probably going to get more serious very quickly,” Hardke said.
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