Arkansas Rice Crop Could See Worst Hit In Decades If Flood Projections Hold

May 4, 2017

An aerial image of flooded fields in Lawrence County on Thursday.
Credit Arkansas Farm Bureau / Twitter

At least 10 percent of Arkansas’ rice crop could be lost as historic floodwaters wash through northeast Arkansas and head south in the coming days. The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture estimates 100,000 rice acres have probably been destroyed or significantly impacted, and that number could rise dramatically by this weekend, U of A rice extension agronomist Dr. Jarrod Hardke told Talk Business & Politics.

During the last five years, an acre produces on average 160 bushels, meaning at least 16 million bushels are in peril, and it could be much more as new rains could trigger extended floods throughout the Delta Region, he said.

“This is far beyond the losses we experienced in 2011… and that is an incredible statement to make,” Hardke said. “The 100,000 acres estimate could be a gross underestimate.”

Arkansas farmers planted an estimated 1.2 million rice acres this spring. One of the key differences between the last epic flood to hit the state in 2011 and now is the timing, Hardke said. About 45% of the rice crop was in the ground when the levee system in Pocahontas ruptured six years ago, and widespread flooding occurred throughout the Mississippi Delta Region. This year, 89% of the rice crop has already been planted, he said.

“A significant amount of input costs are already in the ground,” he said.

If the number of acres impacted only grows slightly, Arkansas could have its worst rice crop since it harvested 1.02 million acres in 1984. The last time farmers failed to harvest at least 1 million acres was 1983.

Rice can survive in flooded fields, but it’s a delicate balance, Hardke said. If the water is somewhat clear, and the plant receives enough oxygen and sunlight, it can live for an expanded time under the water. Research indicates most rice plants can survive for about 10 days under these conditions. Some can live as long as 21 days, but that’s rare, he said.

Arkansas is the leading rice producer in the country. The recent weather events haven’t moved rice prices in the futures market. Rice traded at $4.58 a bushel on the Chicago Board of Trade on Wednesday. At those prices, farmers were already in “razor thin” profitability, Hardke said.

Rice crops were already expected to be much lower this year in the Natural State. Low prices and high inventories compelled farmers to plant 3.5 million soybean acres this spring, the most in the state since 1998. Hardke said replanting rice or switching to soybeans could be tricky, and it might not be cost effective.

Finding replant seeds for either will be difficult, he added. Moreover, the window to plant a viable rice crop is closing. Rice has to be in the ground no later than the first week in June, and even then, the yields will be much lower, Hardke said. Rice planted in early April will produce an optimal yield for the majority of farmers. If it’s planted in early May, research has shown the yield can drop up to 15%. Rice planted in early June can produce yields 30% less than optimal.

Torrential rains hit Arkansas and southern Missouri on Wednesday. At least 50 homes were destroyed in Pocahontas as of Wednesday night, and another 150 had been damaged, according to official estimates. Randolph County emergency responders, conducted at least 36 rescues and two have been done in Lawrence County.

U.S. 63, just south of Hoxie was closed around noon due to rising waters and the towns of Portia, Clover Bend, and Coffman have been ordered to evacuate. There are at least nine reported breaches along the earthen levee that protects Pocahontas from the Black River. Once the levee was breached, water rushed south into neighboring Lawrence County. The river is expected to crest Thursday (May 4) at 31.5-feet – more than three feet higher than the all-time record.

The accumulation of water and where it will go remains a mystery, Hardke said. All rivers in the region flow into the White River and then onto the Mississippi River. If those rivers flood or the flow is stalled, it will leave sitting water on fields for an extended time. Lawrence and Randolph counties have been the hardest hit to this point, but there has been significant damage done to crop fields in Craighead, Jackson, Mississippi, Poinsett, and other counties in the Delta. When the water moves there’s no telling what could happen.

“We are in a wait and see mode … we don’t know what is going to happen,” he said.

On Wednesday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson deployed extra National Guard personnel for possible evacuations in the region after touring the area on Tuesday. In an update with reporters at the capitol, Hutchinson said he has strengthened rescue and evacuation efforts in Randolph, Sharp and Lawrence counties with the deployment of 108 National Guard personnel, along with 25 National Guard vehicles and four high-water rescue teams.

In addition, Hutchinson said the Arkansas State Police Department has sent 23 police response personnel to the area to help with search and recovery efforts. State Police officials have also deployed a mobile communications command center as part of its response efforts.

The governor also noted that there have been nine levee breaches in Randolph County, with three major levee failures in the past 24 hours. “Right now, there are 27 counties that have declared emergency situations,” he said. “We also have seven fatalities and one child that is still being looked for.”

Hutchinson warned sight-seers, motorists and the general public to stay away from the area. “My definition to the public is to listen to the local authorities and if they order an evacuation, do so quickly,” he said, adding that there are six shelters in the three-county area.

Meanwhile, state emergency officials are predicting floodwaters along the Black River near Pocahontas in Randolph County to crest at 31-5 feet, more than three feet higher than the all-time record set in 2011 when the town was decimated by floodwaters.

The governor said he will likely seek federal disaster relief funding from the Trump administration once state officials have had a chance to evaluate the loss of life and property in the flooded areas.