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Wet Spring Brings Plethora Of Complications For Arkansas' Agriculture

Picture of a tractor on a farm
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A rainier than average spring in Arkansas brought multiple complications to the state’s agriculture industry, some of which could have longer term implications later in the year.

Data from the National Weather Service’s Precipitation Plot shows that in mid-May, much of Arkansas, particularly western Arkansas, frequently accumulated at least a half inch of rain in a 24-hour period over multiple days. 

According to Amanda McWhirt, an extension specialist working on fruit and vegetable production for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension, the wet weather could have an impact on the state’s strawberry crop, which growers were in the process of harvesting when the rain begain in earnest.

"When we get a lot of heavy rain on ripe strawberries that can lead to some fruit quality losses where the berries start to get soft and kind of mushy, which makes it impossible for the growers to sell them," McWhirt said. "It also makes it harder for the growers to get out in the field and actually harvest the berries if the fields are really wet. And so our strawberry growers are probably the ones that have been the most impacted in terms of our fruit growers."

Heavy rain has not been the only thing impeding fruit farmers this season. McWhirt says the cold snap that happened in mid-April had a greater impact than the winter weather that hit the state in February, damaging some of the state’s blackberry, blueberry and peach crops.

"It was a very different story because a lot of the plants were no longer dormant and were actually flowering. So we did see some cold injury that happened to open blooms."

As far as how this past spring weather’s impact on crops will later impact consumers, McWhirt says the spring freeze could lead to a reduction of fruit production due to the injured blooms. 

While fruit growers experienced issues with harvesting, row crop farmers dealt with a different problem: a delay in getting their crops planted.

While the rain did cause some delays in soybean planting, the status of the crop could depend on where it’s located. The heavy rain, which primarily hit the western part of the state, still impacted other areas and was responsible for delays in harvesting some crops and pushed back the planting of others.

Jeremy Ross, the extension agronomist for soybeans with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, says warmer dry weather in the beginning of soybean planting season greatly aided farmers, particularly in the southern part of the state.

He said, "Many of the soybean producers down there are really done planting their soybeans crops. And so I think having that good weather early in the season, especially in the southern part of the state really kind of, got us a head start compared to the last couple of years where we’ve really had some really wet conditions and planting was delayed."

However, soybean farmers further north did not have as much luck. Ross says colder weather that followed by the mid-May rain means some farmers had not even started planting their crop. Despite the delays, he says when the weather is right, farmers are taking advantage of every opportunity to plant. 

"The good thing is, with the equipment our producers have now, we can get across a tremendous amount of acreage in a rapid fashion and so we just need two to three weeks of really good weather to try and finish out this planting season," Ross added.

According to Ross, the wet weather also could have caused some farmers to reconsider and change what crops they plant this season. While the final tallies won’t be known until everything is planted, Ross says there is the possibility for some farmers to switch to soybeans as opposed to other row crops.

"The likelihood of seeing some acreage come out of say, cotton, corn or rice is probably pretty high. Especially if we continue to see rain events and those producers are delayed on getting those commodities planted," Ross said. 

Ross also said another reason for an uptick in soybean acreage this year is the commodity price, which is higher than it was a year ago.

Though the spring weather brought complications for farmers this year, the state’s rice farmers have faced weather challenges for longer. 

According to Jarrod Hardke, rice extension agronomist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, consecutive wet springs have led to the underplanting of rice for the past three years. Hardke says at the beginning of this spring, they already were predicting a 10% reduction in rice acreage for this season.

Hardke said, "But as the spring has worn on and we have not been able to plant, it really started to get lower and actually has already probably moved us way down to more like a 25% production in rice acres compared to last year."  

The later rice is planted in the state, the later it will be to eventually harvest it, which Hardke says could lead to more issues in the future.

"The more we’re delayed into harvest, the more we’re delayed into getting prepared into the next season. Which means that even if we get some other opportunities, we’re not in a position to take advantage of them," Hardke said.

According to Hardke, the more delays happen, the harder it will be to return to an earlier planting season which typically produces a higher yield. As Arkansas is the largest producer of rice in the country, Hardke says these delays could make export and domestic demands a little tougher to meet. 

"Certainly it’s a very big deal when you have markets that you to be sustainable and maintained and you start having supply issues and major moves up and down from one year to the next, it becomes much more difficult to manage those supply chains," Hardke said.

Hardke says the continued rain also creates issues related to standing water such as seedling diseases and even killing some plants. However, in recent years past, he says the rainy springs were followed by "mild growing seasons." 

"At least for rice, that’s a positive. A lot of the mid to late season stresses just haven’t really been there," Hardke said. "So, we’ve been maintaining very high state average yields, relatively close to our record set several years ago for a state average yield, but staying right there just because the stress isn’t there for the crop."

For this year, Hardke says there is still very high yield potential for rice as long as Arkansas again gets ideal growing weather, which for rice means sunshine and hotter temperatures.

In addition to causing problems with harvesting and planting in Arkansas, the abundance in rain also caused issues in the logging industry, including an oversaturation in the soil.  Associate Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, Dr. Victor Ford, says that oversaturation has negatively impacted logging conditions. 

"It’s made the conditions of logging extremely difficult because the wear and tear on the equipment [be]cause of all the mud and how it would dig into the soil. It’s also very bad for the soil in the remaining area because you’re rutting it up, you’re churning it up," Ford said. 

Ford says rainy weather like the state experienced in May places a lot of pressure on timber producers because they are unable to regain the losses of paying their employees or of renting their equipment. 

"Right now they’re not even probably making enough to make the equipment payment. And, you know with the pieces of equipment costing $500,000, it doesn’t take very long [for] people to figure out how much money they’re losing on a day when they can’t log," Ford said. 

Ford said some of the long-term impacts of continuous rainy springs on the forestry industry in Arkansas could lead to some diseased trees and a possible decline in the amount of available trees. However, Ford also said some of the problems in the timber industry are a result of compounding problems that can date back years. 

"If these trees are marginally on a site that’s overly wet, they’ll start declining. You get a dry period, they’ll push them further. It makes them more susceptible to diseases and insects, they attack and then in four or five years, you went from a healthy tree to a dead tree," Ford said. "And people say 'Well the bugs killed that.' Well no, what really killed it was the weather event five or ten years ago and that led to the bugs being able to kill the trees."

Ford says Arkansas over the past few years has experienced a repeated weather cycle of very wet springs, followed by very little rain in the later summer. Ford says he hopes this year does not repeat that trend, but it is likely. 

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