The last two growing seasons have been some of the toughest in decades for Arkansas farmers, but a glimmer of hope met many as the harvest season rapidly came to a close in 2019.
The state’s top crop, soybeans, was the most-watched. Farmers saw soybean acreage plummet in 2019 by more than 590,000 acres to end at about 2.6 million, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
University of Arkansas at Monticello agriculture economist Dr. Robert Stark Jr. told Talk Business & Politics the ongoing trade wars with international partners such as China, lower prices, and weather have all contributed to lower soybean acres. But, relatively good weather during the second half of the harvest season and progress on trade talks have actually helped soybean prices rise slightly when compared to the second half of 2018, he said.
During that time frame last year, the average soybean bushel sold for $8.24 from June through December. That same bushel has sold for $8.68 this year. It’s not a major difference, and is nowhere near where prices were half a decade ago, but it could signal the markets will be slightly better for farmers in the coming year, he added.
“I was very concerned that we would have soybeans impacted by cold weather in November,” he said. “Fortunately, for the most part, that wasn’t the case … overall we were blessed.”
The row crop fall harvest season is virtually finished in the state’s bread basket region in the Arkansas Delta. Yield numbers for most crops are slightly down this year.
As of late December, close to 100% of the state cotton, rice, and corn crops were projected to be harvested, according to the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service, or NASS. Soybeans were at 99%, while peanuts were projected to be at 98% harvested.
Arkansas farmers planted 610,000 cotton acres, up about 130,000 acres from 2018, according to NASS. The yield was expected to be about 1,157 pounds per acre, up 24 pounds from the previous year. About 750,000 acres were dedicated to corn, nearly 100,000 acres more than in 2018. About 177 bushels per acre were projected by NASS, a four bushel per acre drop from 2018.
About 1.13 million acres of rice was harvested in 2019. NASS projected that about 7,450 pounds per acre would be harvested, a drop of about 70 pounds per acre from last year.
One crop, peanuts, faced significant dangers as the harvest season got colder and wetter. The number of harvested acres is up 34,000, a 10,000-acre increase, and the yield of about 5,000 bushels per acre remained unchanged from 2018.
In early November, a mass of arctic air dropped temperatures to record lows in many parts of the state, including areas still soggy from waves of storms. By mid-December, however, growers began to shed their initial fears as the crop emerged mostly unscathed, according to the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
“We were expecting it to be really bad,” said Andy Vangilder, extension peanut educator for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. “We thought it could be as high as 25%, but it turned out to be 10% or less,” he said. “It could’ve been much worse.”
While some 5% to 10% of the peanut crop was still in the field by the second week of December — some of it still uninverted — growers were not going to abandon those, Vangilder said. Inversion is part of the harvest process. The plants are pulled from the ground and turned upside down, allowing the peanuts to dry and cure.
“Last year, we had several thousand acres in the field that didn’t get harvested,” he said. “I visited with four or five producers [Dec. 9]. They’re still going to harvest if they get a break in the weather. They’ve said, ‘If we have dry weather, I think we’ll finish.’”
Arkansas peanut acres grew significantly in 2019, said Travis Faske, extension plant pathologist for the Division of Agriculture, who served as the Division’s peanut agronomist before Vangilder. Those peanut acres in Arkansas are concentrated in Randolph, Lawrence, Greene, Craighead, Mississippi, St. Francis, Lee and Phillips counties.
Faske said that pest management remained a key element of peanut production in Arkansas, with southern blight and late leaf spot being among the most widespread soilborne and foliar disease, respectively, impacting Arkansas peanut production.
A new buying point in Marianna helped spur Arkansas peanut production in 2019; a second buying point near Jonesboro in 2020 is expected to further encourage growth of the crop in the state.
“It’ll be better next year with these facilities in place and help the harvest flow more easily in the future,” Vangilder said.
Vangilder said growers were getting around $400 a ton for their peanuts in 2019. The highest quality peanuts go to making candy bars. Lesser peanuts — those that might have freeze damage, for example — will wind up making peanut oil and livestock feed. Prices for the damaged peanuts were around $150 a ton, “which can be devastating to the grower,” Vangilder said.
Scott Stiles, extension economist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, agreed with Stark that 2019 may not turn out to be as bleak as it has been portrayed for most of the year.
“In my opinion growers in the state dodged a bullet this year,” Stiles said. “In spite of the planting delays, state average yields for the major crops will be very close to those seen last year.”
Even the weather, which seemed determined to thwart growers for much of the past 18 months, managed to come around at a few critical junctures, he said.
“Fortunately, the weather cooperated at the end of the growing season,” Stiles said. “September basically extended the summer an additional month. We continued to see some record and near record highs in the first week of October. As a result, the harvest of this year’s crop has tracked closely with the five-year average pace.”
Stiles said that while the ongoing trade dispute between the United States and China has suppressed sales in an overall historical context, negotiators still made headway in 2019.
“On the trade front, China is buying more from the United States this year,” he said. “Export sales of soybeans, cotton and grain sorghum to China are all up significantly over last year. At the local level, stronger export demand has lent some support to soybean basis. Plus, growers are seeing substantial improvement in soybean quality this year. The quality and the grades of the majority of this year cotton crop are exceptional. Cotton yields have been very strong in some areas. It’s possible Arkansas may see a record cotton yield this year.”