Feast or famine planting season for rice farmers

A recent USDA report states the 14-day period that ended May 10 represented two weeks

in a row in which seven out of seven days were “suitable for fieldwork” for Arkansas

farmers.

Those numbers are misleading, according to Dr. Jarrod Hardke, Arkansas rice

specialist. “I’d say the northern third of the state would strongly disagree with that

assessment,” he said, “Maybe two to three out of seven.”

Statewide, rice planting progress sat at 67 percent as of May 10. That’s midway

between last year at this time — 48 percent — and the five-year average of 82 percent.

This is understandable, given the intermittent rains that have defined the state’s weather

for the past 20 months. But again, that number doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Very early on, the northern third of the state was missing more of the rainfall, in both

frequency and amount, so they made good, early progress this season,” Hardke said.

“The southern two-thirds of the state, through most of March and April, was just not

getting anything done.

“Over the last couple of weeks, some of these weekend rains have come in and

hammered that northern third, especially around Jonesboro,” he said. “So the southern

two-thirds is now catching up.”

In the state’s southernmost counties, many growers are grappling with the opposite

problem. John Farabough, Desha County agricultural agent, said that by the time many

fields in his area dried out enough for fieldwork, the soil had lost too much moisture to

support rice sprouting, emergence or stand establishment.

“We’ve got a lot of guys that are actually starting to water down furrows right now,”

Farabough said. “I know we’re supposed to get some rain this weekend, but we’re

pulling the trigger to make sure our crop is taken care of.”

Farabough described much of the season as a “rollercoaster,” noting that at least one

grower had organized his farmworkers into day and night shifts to take full advantage of

windows of dry weather.

“He had one crew doing field prep in the day, and another planting all night,” he said.

“He said he’d keep doing it until the rain hits again.”

Arkansas growers reported an intention to plant about 1.39 million acres of rice,

according to the USDA’s Prospective Plantings report, released March 31. The state’s

final rice acreage will be subject to multiple external factors. The fact that almost no rice

was early planted, due to persistent rainfalls throughout March, may lower the overall

acreage.

The deadline for declaring prevented planting in Arkansas rice is May 25, so continued

rainfall in the northern part of the state over the next week could also have an outsized

impact on total rice acreage. But the continued suppression of soybeans markets may

ultimately prove to be a more powerful motivator, Hardke said.

“Rice prices are better than any other option — certainly soybeans — as far as going in

late,” he said. “Depending on the next week’s rain, we could still achieve 1.5 million

acres of rice.”


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