Arkansas rice farmers were hit with a number of dramatic challenges as the planting and growing season unfolded during 2022. Weather patterns shifted from too wet to drought. Input costs for fuel, fertilizers, and others rose dramatically.
Agronomist Jarrod Hardke has a word for the 2022 rice season — erratic.
“The year began with dramatically higher input costs, especially for fertilizer and diesel fuel,” said Hardke, extension rice agronomist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
Average yields are down from last year’s record average, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service estimate, Hardke said. “Average yield is estimated at 165 bushels per acre, down from almost 170 bushels an acre in 2021.”
While the average yield is lower this year, Hardke said — and he expects it to be a little lower when the final data is in — it’s not far off the previous years of 2017-2020.
Arkansas accounts for nearly half the rice grown in the U.S. In 2020, rice contributed more than $1.1 billion to the state’s agricultural economy, according to the 2022 Agricultural Profile published by the Division of Agriculture. Planted acreage this growing season topped 1.11 million acres, according to NASS.
All rice production for the state is forecast at 81.2 million hundredweight, down 5% from the August forecast and down 11% from last year’s production of 91.1 million hundredweight, NASS reported. The all-rice yield for 2022 is forecast at 7,500 pounds per acre, down 50 pounds from August and down 130 pounds from last year.
Rice prices began to rise around planting time, Hardke said, holding out hope that farmers might recoup their input costs in the end. But 2022 was the fourth or fifth wet spring in a row, and that delayed field preparation and planting, making those projected prices shaky.
“The rains stabilized a bit around May,” he said. “And then in June, it was like someone threw a switch, the rain stopped, and temperatures got up in the 90s. It got hot and dry, and everything just dried up really fast.”
The dry weather in June, when it was time to fertilize and flood rice, put a lot of strain on irrigation systems.
“Rice is very hardy in the face of extremes,” Hardke said. “So, in June, the rice was growing so fast it was soaking up all the water. A lot of growers were late getting nitrogen incorporated into the soil, and it took much longer to put a flood on the rice. Fields that might take three to four days to flood were taking 10 or 14 days.”
Irrigation pumps were running non-stop, Hardke said. “Growers experienced a lot of problems with wells going down because they were running so hard. And then, they had issues with replacing parts because of supply chain shortages.”
“These problems just nagged us all season,” Hardke said. “But rice is resilient, and when it needs help, it will kind of wait on you, so there was a bit of an escape for us. But it will only wait for so long.”
Hardke said milling yields were average for the year. “That’s better than last year when we had record rough rice yields, but milling yield was low,” he said. “That’s not a big gain for farmers, but it helps to get a little of that value back from a lower yield.”
Hardke said the NASS yield estimate doesn’t paint a complete picture of this year’s rice crop.
“The story is about the variability of success from field to field,” he said. “Yields were erratic because of the weather extremes and other problems growers faced in 2022.”
Dry weather kept disease pressure low, Hardke said. But late rains in some areas in August revived disease problems in those fields until hot, dry weather returned. On the other hand, the dry weather during harvest was a bonus.
“This year was the smoothest, driest harvest anyone could remember,” Hardke said.
The extended dry weather also allowed many growers to prepare fields for next year, work that usually has to wait for a dry window between August and April. And those windows of opportunity have been few in recent years.
“The speed that farmers were able to move through their fields meant that a ton of fall field work got done, especially in northeast Arkansas,” Hardke said. “A lot of fields are basically ready to plant next year.”
Rice producers who had losses this last season will receive some aid from the federal government.
The U.S. House and Senate passed a year-end spending package in late December. Included in the bill was $250 million in assistance for domestic rice farmers to help combat major losses due to record high input costs.
U.S. Sen. John Boozman said he helped get the aid included in the spending bill.
“It has been a difficult year for rice producers,” said Boozman, who is the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. “Soaring input costs have hurt producers of every commodity, but—as documented by two separate studies out of Texas A&M University—had a disproportionate impact on rice producers. I am pleased we came together to address this challenge in the year-end bill.”
David Gairhan, chair of the Arkansas Rice Federation, said the aid is much needed.
“The Arkansas rice community greatly appreciates Sen. Boozman’s successful efforts to provide support during a time of record high input costs. The timing of this assistance is crucial as farmers consider options for the upcoming planting season. Our state benefits from his leadership and we look forward to continuing to work with him and his staff in the new year on the next Farm Bill and other issues of concern,” he said.