Friday, August 31, 2012

TOP STORY >> Farmers fear too much rain

Leader senior staff writer

After a rainless season of sizzling heat, followed late this week by Tropical Storm Isaac’s wind-driven rain storms, Lonoke County-area farmers are stuck between a drought and a wet place.

Rice farmers worked around the clock to harvest their crop and move it to driers or covered storage ahead of the rains. Long lines of trucks waited to offload their rice at Riceland and elsewhere before racing back to their farms for another load before the rain came.

Despite flooding in Pine Bluff and high waters cutting off some roads in England, actual flooding is not yet a problem for area farmers. A new storm front was expected on Friday however.

Pine Bluff received 7.82 inches of rain in about 24 hours. In Lonoke County farmers received a more manageable 2 to 4 inches.

Rich Hillman of Carlisle, a Lonoke and Prairie County rice farmer, said, “After this flood, that may be past tense,” with a smile you could hear over the phone.

Hillman is a fifth-generation farmer who planted his first crops in 1987, He says he is much older in farmer years.

“Kind of like dog years,” Hillman said. “I’m 49 and getting older by the hour.”

“It wasn’t very bad this morning until a couple hours ago,” he said at about 11 a.m. Friday.

Hillman, who is a Farm Bureau vice president, had gotten about three inches of rain Thursday and overnight. “It’s been relentless since. Probably another three inches since and its probably raining about an inch every half hour.”

He had about 60 percent of his crop in before the rain hit. Ideally, rice is harvested at 19 percent moisture or less. His harvest was 13 to 14 percent, but the rain stopped the harvest dead in its tracks. The wind knocked grains off the heads and knocked plants over as well.

He figures he’s losing about 10 to 20 percent of his remaining crop, and what he salvages is likely to be downgraded.

He will still harvest those fields when the rain eventually stops — and the Weather Channel says there’s more to come — he will not be able to get his combines back into the fields for a while.

A single combine can harvest 40 to 50 acres a day in normal conditions. But after the stalks are knocked over and the fields are wet, a combine can harvest 15 to 20 acres per day.

On the positive side, he said, “It will help if we can cease to irrigate.

“I haven’t turned irrigation pumps off until about five days ago,” Hillman said. “We started irrigating rice the first week of May and haven’t stopped.”

Farmers like Hillman have scores of irrigation pumps. It can cost a farmer about $3,000 a month to pump from a 100-foot well, but some wells are 400-feet deep and can run up a diesel or electric bill of $10,000 a month, he said.

Hillman said it would greatly benefit not only the farmers, but towns and communities east of Little Rock in the Grand Prairie if Congress would fund the two stalled irrigation projects – the Grand Prairie Project and the Bayou Meto Basin Water Management project.

Hillman said he has farms in each of those areas.

“If we run out of water, we’ll see a mass exodus of population,” according to Hillman. “We’ll all be dry-land farmers, not much money in that.”

Lonoke County Chief Extension Agent Jeff Welch said, “Before rain came in, farmers were working 24 hours a day to harvest rice.”

Throughout the county, farmers got between two and four inches of rain Thursday and Friday and winds of 25 miles and hour.

He said the rain and wind have driven thousands of acres of rice to the ground where it can be harvested only with great difficulty.

“A farmer can lose 20 bushels to 70 bushels an acre,” he said.

Typically, farmers get 180 to 190 bushels an acre.

The rains are “a God send” for cattle producers.

They may be able to get a second cutting of hay, and can put pastures in small-grain crops for winter forage. The y are planting wheat, rye and rey grass and a new crop, tritacale, which is a cross between rye and wheat.

The corn crop is nearly all harvested and because of early planting, the yield is higher than average and in some cases extraordinary, Welch said.

An average good yield would be about 200 bushels an acre, but this year there are fields yielding 230 to 275 bushels an acre.

“Yields above 230 bushels an acre are unheard of,” he said.

Welch said the rains were sufficient to soak into the ground and also to help refill some on-farm irrigation reservoirs, especially those that can be refilled with water pumped from replenished creeks and ditches or Bayou Meto.