Ongoing drought poses threat to $16 billion Arkansas industry

Heavy spring rains followed by weeks of dry weather is threatening Arkansas's largest industry.

So much rain fell in the spring that farmers were "at or flirting with the slowest planting progress in decades," said Jarrod Hardke, the statewide rice extension agronomist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

Corn is planted in early March, followed by rice in the latter part of the month, Hardke said. Other crops follow near the beginning of April, including soybeans, which take up the largest portion of that state's farmland.

But once the rain stopped, it stopped completely. An inch of rain that fell in eastern Arkansas recently where many row crops are grown, which just a "Band-aid," Hardke said Now a drought is threatening the agriculture industry, which brings in $16 billion to the state, according the Farm Bureau.

The latest map from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows almost all of the state in a moderate drought. Some portions are in a severe drought while a small section in North Arkansas is in an extreme drought.

Farmers are having to make decisions as to where to use the limited water supply. Soybeans may take up more acreage in the state but Arkansas is the number one producer of rice in the U.S.

"You are going to chase the greatest return potential on the rice that already has the greatest cost investment" Hardke said. "Every scenario is different for every grower but that's the generality we're operating under."

Irrigation efforts are roughly doubling costs for farmers and that's on top of increases in fertilizer costs and other input costs. And even with all the efforts, there's likely going to be a reduction in yield, Hardke said. The challenges could lead some farmers to leave the field.

And it's not just the farmers that are affected.

"The general estimate is one in six jobs in Arkansas is directly tied to agriculture," Hardke said. "That's not just farmers or being on the farm but all of the trucking and mills and dryers and processing facilities, everything that goes hand in hand directly tied to the products coming off the farms."

The full impact of the drought won't be felt until after harvest, according to Hardke. The rice harvest does not begin until the last two weeks of August.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson asked U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for a Secretarial Disaster Declaration. The governor said in his letter the dry weather is expected to continue.

"Arkansas is experiencing the hottest temperatures in 10 years and recent precipitation and outlook reports from the National Weather Service predict above-average temperatures for the next 8-14 days with little chance of precipitation," Hutchinson said in the letter sent last week.

A disaster declaration could mean the difference in farmers being able to continue, Hardke said.

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