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VOL. 127 | NO. 142 | Monday, July 23, 2012

Scorched Earth

High temperatures, drought bring disastrous season for region’s farmers

By Aisling Maki

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The daily hustle and bustle of city life makes it easy for Memphians to forget that the urban pocket they call home sits amid one of the nation’s richest agricultural regions, one that’s suffering the economic impact of unusually high temperatures and a nationwide drought.

The West Tennessee corn crop, including this stalk at Shelby Farms Park, has been hit hard by drought conditions in the area.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Although the recent rains have brought some relief to the nation’s farmers in the midst of what’s been called the worst drought in nearly 25 years, it may have come too late to salvage some crops, especially corn.

Steep temperatures and dry soil during corn’s narrow pollination window have prevented kernels from developing properly. The Associated Press reports nearly a third of the nation’s corn crop has already shown signs of damage.

And recently released reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture predict farmers will only see a fraction of the corn anticipated last spring when they planted 96.4 million acres, the most planted since 1937.

“From my standpoint, I can remember droughts that were worse than this, but when you talk about nationwide, this is probably the worst that I can remember that’s from coast to coast almost, through the whole mid-section of the United States,” said John Charles Wilson, president of Agricenter International in Memphis, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing agricultural technologies through research and trials.

Wilson, whose organization also maintains the world’s largest urban farm, said the season kicked off with an optimistic outlook prompted by a warm spring, which allowed farmers to begin planting early – some as early as February.

But surging temperatures and a lack of rainfall resulted in scorched cornfields in many parts of the nation.

Wilson said Tennessee was fortunate to have received about five inches of rain just before the drought hit the Mid-South.

“We’re hurt – there’s no question about it; we’re hurt pretty bad,” Wilson said. “But it would’ve been just a total disaster had we not lucked out and gotten some localized rain.”

Still, Wilson said, corn crops across Tennessee have shown significant damage. With corn and corn oil as ingredients in numerous food products ranging from soft drinks to cereals, crop shortages are driving increased food prices.

Wilson said weather conditions in recent years have driven more Tennessee farms to install irrigation systems, but the process comes with both a hefty price tag and a learning curve.

“You just don’t go out, put an irrigation system in and then everything’s all right with the world,” he said. “You’ve got to understand how to irrigate, when to irrigate, how much to irrigate; there’s a science to it just like there is in any production method of agriculture. You can do as much damage by irrigating at the wrong time as you can by doing it at the right time.”

But, Wilson said, irrigation serves as somewhat of an insurance policy for farmers in need of loans.

“It’s not a requirement to get a loan, but if you go into a bank and you’re trying to get a loan for production and you’ve got irrigation, they’re a whole lot more apt to make a loan to you on that crop than they would with just dry-land farming,” he said.

Across the border in the Natural State, roughly 95 percent of corn crops are now under irrigation, according to Dr. Tom Barber, associate professor in the Department of Crop, Soil & Environmental Sciences at the University of Arkansas.

An agricultural researcher looks at common rice affected by drought conditions growing in a test plot at Shelby Farms Park.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Like Tennessee’s farmers, Arkansas’ farmers planted early this year, only to experience later setbacks resulting from heat and drought.

“We had several weeks there when temperatures were at or over 100 degrees,” Barber said. “Regardless of which crop you’re talking about, that’s very stressful and hard – even with irrigation – to keep the crops producing at the most efficient level. I’m sure that we’ve lost some yield just due to the heat on all our crops.”

Recent U.S. Drought Monitor analysis shows more than 70 percent of Arkansas is in extreme drought or worse. On July 11, the U.S. Department of Agriculture granted a disaster declaration for 69 of the state’s 75 counties due to drought.

Looking at cotton, one of the Mid-South’s major crops, about 85 percent of those acres are irrigated in Arkansas, said Barber, an extension cotton agronomist. He said this year’s cotton crop will be one of the earliest in history.

As for the remaining roughly 15 percent of Arkansas cotton acres that are not irrigated, Barber says that although the recent rains have provided some temporary relief, overall “they’re in bad shape right now,” he said.

“I know in West Tennessee, they’ve been really burned up. Where we’re not able to run water to supplement for no rainfall, none of our crops are going to be able to do very well,” he said. “Cotton and soybeans on non-irrigated ground this year in Arkansas just aren’t going to yield very well.”

Meanwhile in Tennessee, Wilson said the maturity of the state’s cotton crops have been delayed due to low rainfall, yielding smaller-than-usual plants. Adding to farmers’ frustrations are the current low cotton trading prices and rising production costs related to oil and fertilizer prices. Wilson said seed prices, too, have increased as the result of technological intervention in seed varieties.

“There’s no question the seeds are better,” Wilson said. “They’re trying to breed all kinds of resistance to diseases and to insects into them – even trying to make them drought resistant – and these things are very costly from a technology standpoint. They pass that cost onto the producer.”

It’s also been a rough season for farmers who raise livestock, with drought and high temperatures scorching their pastures.

“They’re probably in the worst shape because of this drought,” Barber said. “In some areas of Arkansas, they started feeding hay in June. And now we don’t have the hay to feed because we can’t get the grass to cut the hay. … The end result is a lot of cows are being sold in Arkansas because we just don’t have the feed to carry them through.”

Mid-South farmers are still holding out hope for the success of one crop this season: soybeans. There’s no question that the maturity of the crop is lagging, but if adequate rainfall continues, Wilson said, “There’s still time to make a good bean crop.”

This challenging harvesting season may be one situation where it pays to be the little guy, at least for Tubby Creek Farm, the Ashland, Miss., homestead and working farm belonging to Josephine and Randy Alexander.

Tubby Creek practices chemical-free, sustainable agriculture, selling high-quality produce through farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture. Josephine Alexander, former coordinator at GrowMemphis, a sustainable agriculture program of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, says this is the couple’s first year producing on the farm.

Small farms that cater to the markets seem to be in “a little bit of a better position to deal with the curve balls that the weather throws at us because most of what we have in the field right now is under irrigation,” she said. “We’re relatively small and we’re growing such a diversity of things, and what we’re growing, even in a good season, isn’t typically very successful to have without irrigation. So we have everything pretty much under irrigation.”

She said other market farmers she knows who don’t have irrigation systems in place are currently facing formidable challenges, as are farms that produce only one or two crops. With more than 100 varieties of 30 different types of vegetables, Tubby Creek Farm is poised to have at least a few crops produce well this season. Although she describes crop diversification as “very complicated,” Alexander said it provides more economic stability for the small farmer.

Dry fields at Shelby Farms Park get water in the wake of drought conditions in West Tennessee. 

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

“I try not to complain about it too much because I know that, compared to other farmers, we’ve kind of got it good in that we feel the effects of the weather, but we have more ways to mitigate those effects than people who are doing just one crop or a handful of crops, or who don’t have any irrigation,” Alexander said.

One of the main challenges faced by sustainable farmers in the Mid-South this year has been an amplified pest problem prompted by a mild winter.

“We had different pests than we would expect, we had them earlier, and we had more of them,” Alexander said. “It’s not much of a problem for conventional farmers who use pesticides.”

Alexander, who’s currently dealing with cucumber beetles, said this spring she battled cutworms and yellow-margined leaf beetle, a species with which she was unfamiliar.

“The whole thing about organic pest management is that you have to be able to anticipate your pests because most of what you’re doing is prevention,” she said. “When you have increased pest pressure combined with inadequate water, everything just kind of amplifies and makes it very challenging for the plants to thrive.”

Alexander said she’s grateful for the continued support of regional consumers, whom she says continue to buy local despite inconveniences such as the lack of availability of particular produce and higher prices incurred by farmers that are subsequently passed on to the consumer.

“People’s livelihood really is at stake, and nobody’s making a killing farming; everybody’s just trying to make a living,” Alexander said. “So we do need the continued support of consumers through these challenging times.”

PROPERTY SALES 116 288 17,672
MORTGAGES 143 337 20,372
BUILDING PERMITS 139 488 36,434
BANKRUPTCIES 43 158 11,322