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Harvest yields low in Northeast Arkansas, could force more farmers from the fields

Low crop yields could force some farmers in Craighead County to abandon their livelihoods by the spring, Craighead County Extension Agent Brannon Thiesse told Talk Business & Politics.

Rain, humidity, periods of intense heat, and other factors have led to a relatively poor harvest for rice, soybeans, and corn farmers – three of the staple row crops in the region. There are roughly 200 farmers in Craighead County, and Theisse estimates up to 5% of them could go out of business as a result of poor yields.

“We’ve had years like this and it took out some bad farmers … this time around I think it’s going to take out some good farmers, too,” Thiesse said. “Some of our farmers may be forced to get out. This has been a disaster for some of them.”

Farmers take out loans to pay for seed, ground rental, equipment and other expenses, Theisse said. When the crops are sold, farmers pay back those loans, he said. Prices are contingent on contracts signed by farmers and prices can fluctuate significantly depending upon when the contract was signed.

High humidity throughout the summer, heavy rains in August, and periods of intense heat through the early fall caused significant damage to crops in the field. In Craighead County, farmers planted about 70,000 acres of rice, according to the USDA. An acre can typically yield up to 180 marketable bushels of rice. This year the bushels per acre are down to about 120, he said. Rice prices for farmers have ranged from $4.50 to $4.95 a bushel, according to USDA.

“The yields were not what they expected,” Thiesse said.

SOYBEAN, CORN PROBLEMS
Soybean farmers had similar problems. In Craighead County, about 106,000 soybean acres were planted. The heavy rains caused the plants to germinate early which can lead to losses in the field. Soybean fields in the county can yield up to 80 bushels per acre, but this year some fields didn’t yield anymore than 35 bushels per acre, Theisse said.

Soybean prices have ranged from $9.31 to $11 per bushel in 2016, a 45-cent per bushel bump from 2015, agriculture economist Scott Stiles previously told Talk Business & Politics.

Corn was also affected. More than 27,000 corn acres were planted this year. Farmers typically hope to get up to 200 bushels per acre, but the range has been 165-170 bushels, according to USDA. Contract prices topped out at $4.25 per bushel earlier this year, but most farmers signed contracts below $4 per bushel.

Cotton farmers fared a little better this year, Theisse said. About 65,000 cotton acres were planted in Craighead County. Cotton crops tend to do better in the heat, but some minor disease issues hampered yields, he said.

Most cotton farmers hope to extract three bales per acre, but this year it will be down to 2.5 bales per acres for most farmers, according to estimates. Farmers were projected to get anywhere from 63-cents per pound to up to 78-cents per pound, based on their contract rates.

‘A REAL DISASTER’
The farmer loss is still expected to be less in Craighead County than in surrounding Lawrence and Randolph counties where officials estimate up to 75 farmers could go out of business.

Losses across the state have been enormous due to the late summer rains. It’s estimated at least $50 million worth of row crops were lost in the flooding, according to the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. Rice farmers could lose $18.6 million alone. Soybean farmers could lose $11 million in Northeast Arkansas. Cotton losses could top $11.5 million.

Arkansas lawmakers have asked Congress to provide at least $60 million is assistance. It could come in the form of loans, but many farmers affected can’t afford the loans either, said Rep. James Ratliff, D-Imboden. A timetable for congressional action has not been set.

Thiesse has worked the fields in Craighead County for more than 30 years. He’s seen worse crops and floods, but not many he said.

“This will be a real disaster for some of our farmers … some of them will not recover from this.”

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