Friday, August 17, 2012

TOP STORY >> Farmers salvage crops

Leader senior staff writer

Lonoke County farmers should be able to get their crops to market if they survive this year’s drought.

Billy Lindermen would prefer to be watering soybeans and rice from his reservoir just north of Lonoke and I-40. But instead he’s pumping water as fast as he can from the alluvial aquifer, about 150 feet below the surface. Dry earth and dust are all his reservoirs hold these days.

Fortunately for Lonoke County farmers, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoirs in Oklahoma, at the top of the McClellan/Kerr Waterway, have managed to keep nine feet of water in the Arkansas River.

While that river water is not available for irrigation and won’t be until money is found to finish the Bayou Meto Basin system, the river is at least navigable and farmers can move their crops to market.

Barge traffic on the Arkansas River continues to flow, unlike conditions on parts of the Mississippi River. Towboats and barges are tied off there, with traffic near a standstill at barges operating with light loads.

The bountiful — if expensive —Arkansas harvest isn’t likely to pile up on the ground while awaiting transport to the Gulf of Mexico. The locks and dams on the McClellan-Kerr have made the Arkansas a commercially navigable water-way. According to Laurie Driver, a spokeswoman for the Little Rock Office of the Corps, the Montgomery Point Lock and Dam has keep traffic moving up and down Arkansas even as the Mississippi water level has fallen over time.

“We’ve had to dredge between the Montgomery Lock and Dam and the Mississippi,” Driver said.

The water level has fallen on the lower Mississippi, but the channel is still 300 feet wide and in pretty good shape, according to Charles Camillo, historian for the Mississippi River Commission. He said some river traffic at the edges of that channel has run aground, but river pilots are getting the word and sticking close to the channel.

Camillo said the Coast Guard marks the channel.

“River levels are starting to approach the drought of 1988,” Camillo said, but traffic continues to move.

There is also a report that the Mississippi is so low that sea water is moving up the river and could threaten New Orleans’ drinking water.

Lonoke farmer Lindermen said he’s grateful for the one- and three-quarters inches of rain Sunday night and Monday. “It’ll help the crops keep going, but I’ve never had to pump (water from the aquifer) this hard. In 25 years, this is the driest I’ve ever seen.”

As money has dried up for the Bayou Meto Basin water project, Lindermen says both planned phases would have to be completed for the water to reach his fields.

The Bayou Meto project “is going to be the life of farming,” Lindermen says.

“You can’t farm without water.”

Since his pumps were drilled in the sixties, the aquifer water level has fallen dramatically. He worries that if the trend continues, the Soil Conservation Service will order farmers to stop using it to irrigate their fields. As if “extreme” drought wasn’t bad enough, 54 percent of the state is now in “exceptional” drought, which is even worse.

Drought covers nearly 78 percent of the United States, with exceptional drought covering more than 6 percent. An Extension Service report identified the most severe areas as Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and parts of Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Virtually all of Arkansas is in some sort of drought condition. Some parts of the state have been designated as disaster areas, which will make low-interest loans available to farmers and to businesses affected by the drought.

Gov. Mike Beebe has pledged $2 million from his emergency fund for livestock producers who are already feeding hay they had put back for the winter and selling livestock to avoid feeding.

Pastures across the state are dried up, including north of I-40 in Lonoke and Pulaski counties, which is livestock country.

Cattlemen are advised to plant wheat, rye and rye grass in hopes that a crop could help feed livestock over the winter, Lonoke County Extension agriculture chief Jeff Welch said.

Elsewhere, aflatoxins in corn have reached dangerous levels, but Lonoke County farmers are finding “extremely low levels.” That’s the corn that was planted early, in March and April, to take advantage of mild winter temperatures, Welch said.

“Later-planted corn, we don’t know yet...but we’re sitting on one of the better yields we’ve ever had,” Welch said.

Early planting meant the corn didn’t go through the critical blister stage when the temperatures were between 102 and 110 degrees and night time temperatures were acceptable for good grain fill.

“The early planted rice is coming out now with a good yield,” Welch said, but some problems are being discovered in the milling. “Some is not the highest quality because of high nighttime temperatures. It may have a chalky grain and draw a lower price.”

Late soybeans have been in the ground since the end of June. With irrigation, they are growing, but they are going to be susceptible to end-of-season diseases and insects.

The cotton quality and yield is shaping up for a good season, said Welch, citing cotton specialist Tom Barber, but in a recession, prices will be off. Cotton should be about $1 a pound, but is currently about 70 cents.