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Excessive Rain Delays Arkansas Rice Planting While COVID-19 Causes Worries About Supplies

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Rice being harvested in Lonoke County on Oct. 11, 2021. Increasing costs have prompted economists to revise this year's crop budgets.

Despite the growing number of COVID-19 cases in Arkansas, long stretches of wet weather are proving to be more of an issue for farmers, but the virus is having an impact.

Jarrod Hardke, rice extension agronomist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, says typically, this would be the beginning of the planting season for rice. However, the excess rain has complicated things.

"The overabundance of rainfall throughout the winter and early spring has the majority of our ground still unprepared for planting at this point," Hardke said.

Since the planting of rice often rotates with soybean crops, Hardke says some of that preparation for a rice crop involves the removal of beds needed to grow soybeans. Other than servicing their equipment, he says some farmers aren’t doing much of anything due to the rain.

"There’s a lot of looking around to what do we do next. So they’re trying to find things to stay busy with, things that they might not do typically until later in the year," Hardke said. "We’re kind of running out of those things to do."

2019 proved to be a hard year for farmers with higher than average rainfall amounts, historic flooding and the U.S.’s trade war with China. Harke says longer term models have predicted more favorable planting conditions in mid-April.

"That does still leave us staring at the walls for another few weeks potentially until that occurs," Hardke said. "Then you’re already starting to get past the window for optimum yield potential, when we would have the chance to get started in the field should we continue to see the rain they’re forecasting for the next week or so."

While the COVID-19 health crisis is not posing a large problem for farmers yet, Hardke says it could in the long term. One example is obtaining needed supplies.

"It may become more difficult to get their hands on specific input timely, when they need them. To get their feed on hand, fertilizer, chemicals, those things. That may be where they start to feel the specific impact," Hardke said.

For others in the agriculture industry, COVID-19 is already having an impact. Rachel Bearden, county extension agent staff chair in Hot Spring County for the UA Division of Agriculture, is moving the county’s annual plant sale online instead of the in-person event that happens on the first Saturday in April.

"With as many volunteers and as many plants as we have, trying to cancel that sale would have been devastating for not just those volunteers, but even our community members that will line up outside the door to get the best pick of plants," Bearden said.

This year’s plant sale will take place on Facebook and run from Monday, March 23 until April 6. Customers will be able to comment on photos of the plants they want to purchase, then pick up their purchases though a drive-thru system and pay at a later time. Even with this new system and the potential of attracting new patrons, Bearden says they will lose some customers.

"While Facebook and other virtual options are great, it is going to leave out some people that wouldn’t be able to come buy plants that would visit our plant sale. So pending no other disasters, I’m going to go ahead and assume that next year we will go back to normal and have our one day," Bearden said.

As far as other ways COVID-19 is impacting agriculture, like Hardke, Bearden says the biggest concern she hears from farmers is how to get supplies.

"As you think about warehouses shutting down that aren’t essential products, my guys getting ready for hay season are wondering if they need to go pick enough net-wrap to get them through to the middle of July, which could be thousands of dollars they weren’t ready to spend right now," Bearden said.

However, for some farmers, social distancing does have a benefit.

"I know some of my farmers have kind of joked that some parents are freaking about having to find things for their kids to do all the time," Bearden said. "Our farmers are excited because now they have their farm help all day."

Sarah Kellogg was a Politics and Government reporter for KUAR from November 2018- August 2021.