Wind, rain taking toll on farms

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 7, 2008

The incessant rain and wind brought on by Hurricane Gustav was just the latest hurdle local farmers have faced in what has been an unpredictable year for agriculture.

Flooding in March and April forced many farmers to delay planting soybeans and corn until June, which was followed by a draught in July and one of the wettest Augusts in history.

“It’s really been a mixed bag this year, but I still think there’s a lot of strength in the local market,” said John Coccaro, Warren County Extension Service director.

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Farmers rushed to harvest as much corn as they could before nearly 11 inches of rain that fell locally in a four-day period beginning last Sunday. Those who didn’t get into the fields before the rain likely will be able to begin harvesting again this week as the fields dry out once again.

“Everybody was working late nights to get the corn harvested right up until the time they were rained out,” said Eagle Lake area farmer Bill Parker, who oversees about 2,700 acres of crops including corn, soybeans and cotton. “We were lucky to finish with our corn, and we were able to help our neighbor get some of his out.”

Debbie Buckelew, Bunge grain merchandiser for Vicksburg, said many Bunge grain elevators extended normal operating hours from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. to 7 a.m.-9 p.m. as the storm approached. Bunge operates 14 grain elevators on both sides of the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, with much of the corn going toward ethanol production at the Ergon-Bunge ethanol plant in the port of Vicksburg.

“We had a lot more traffic than normal from farmers making that last effort to get their corn harvested,” said Buckelew.

Coccaro said most local farmers were able to harvest corn before the storm, and those who didn’t appear to have been spared major damage.

“Two-thirds of the corn in this vicinity was probably harvested prior to the storm,” said Coccaro. “We did have a few reports of blown down corn from farmers who weren’t able to harvest before the storm, but nothing compared to what we saw with (Hurricane) Katrina.”

No numbers are available on total crop damage from Gustav, but it is thought to be significantly less than the $2 billion in damage reported in the state following Katrina.

While most farmers may have been able to get the corn harvested before Gustav, almost none are seeing yields comparable to last year.

“Last year was a once in a many year occasion for corn, where we were averaging about 215 bushels per acre,” said David Wansley, Valley Park Elevator manager. “Average yields are probably off about 20 percent this year. We’re seeing yields anywhere from 190 bushels per acre on down to 100 bushels.”

Along with lower yields, Wansley said corn with a higher moisture content than preferred is being brought to the elevators, which cuts into profits for both the farmer and elevator operator.

“We can handle corn with 17 percent moisture and below without using the driers, but we’ve been taking in corn with up to 21 percent,” said Wansley. “It’s expensive to dry it down, and that affects the price farmers get for their crops.”  

Despite lower yields and high drying costs, Wansley said most of the approximately 80 farmers who deliver grain to Valley Park Elevator should fulfill the forward contracts they signed months ago for their corn.

“People will have no problem fulfilling corn contracts, but they are worried about their soybean bookings,” he said. “We won’t really know for sure until harvesting begins, which should start next week for those who were able to plant early.”

Coccaro said those who took a gamble by planting soybeans late this year due to spring flooding will likely see a payoff come harvest time in a month or two, whereas those who planted on time and are preparing to harvest now could find a damaged crop.

“For those who planted soybeans on time, all this rain hit at a real bad time in the beans’ development. Those soybeans could likely have some seed rot due to too much moisture,” he explained.

Doug Jeter, whose wheat crop off Chickasaw Road was a total loss this spring due to flooding, didn’t get to plant his 250 acres of soybeans until June 9 — about two months later than he would have preferred. Now he’s glad he had to wait.

“It looks like they’re doing pretty well for the most part,” he said of the crops following Gustav. “When we planted so late we didn’t think we’d get but 15 or 20 bushels an acre. Last year we got between 45 and 50 bushels per acre. Now it’s looking like they could still average 40 bushels this year even though they’re late plants.”   

Coccaro said a rainy August has also raised concerns about a potentially devastating fungus known as Asian soybean rust. The fungus can be transferred via kudzu, and thrives under cool and wet conditions. If it finds its way into a crop, Asian soybean rust can spread quickly and completely destroy plants.   

“Normally it’s a problem we don’t have to worry about during a hot August, but with so much rain this year we are monitoring it very closely,” said Coccaro. “We haven’t noticed any in the area yet.”

A total of 11.33 inches of rain was recorded in Vicksburg for the month of August. The average rainfall for the month is just more than 3 inches. Conversely, rainfall in July totaled just under 0.5 inch in the city, far below the average of 3.5 inches. Year to date, rainfall in Vicksburg measured 43 inches through Friday, 5 inches above the average total.

Farmers across the river from Vicksburg apparently fared slightly worse than their neighbors in Mississippi through Gustav. Portions of Tensas and Franklin parishes — one of the centers of Louisiana agriculture — were drenched by as many as 17 inches of rain due to Gustav, said Bob Hutchinson, regional director of the LSU AgCenter. Hundreds of farm houses were flooded during what Hutchinson called the worst scene he’d seen in his 29 years in northeastern Louisiana.

“If their houses are flooded, you can image what happened to the crop lands,” he said, noting thousands of acres of corn, cotton, soybeans, grain sorghum, rice and sweet potatoes are now at risk.

Darrell Vandeven, who farms 6,500 acres of cotton, corn and soybeans in St. Joseph, La., said roughly 90 percent of the cotton and 60 percent of the soybeans in Tensas Parish — which were not affected by spring flooding — were able to be harvested before the storm hit. The remaining crops, speculated Vandeven, are likely lost, including the entire cotton crop.

“We had been looking at a mediocre cotton crop,” Vandeven said. “With this, it’ll be the worst cotton crop ever. I’ve never seen a 100 percent crop loss up here, but some of these fields will not be harvestable.”

Due to increasing prices for grains such as corn and soybeans in recent years, cotton farming in Warren County has become almost nonexistent, said Rob Riggin, Warren County Farm Service Agency Executive Director.

“The cotton acres are down about 50 percent compared to last year, primarily due to prices,” he said, noting he could not release official acreage reports on Warren County until the USDA publishes its seasonal report this month. “It costs more to raise an acre of cotton than it does an acre of corn or soybeans, and it sells for less.”  

Parker, who planted about 600 acres of cotton this year, said he is concerned the crop — which he said he only raises to help keep the local cotton gin in business — may be compromised by the recent rains.  

“The bolls had started to open when the rain started, and we’re concerned there could be some losses,” he said. “We’ll see come harvest time, but for now we’re just hoping we don’t get anymore of those storms. We don’t need anymore of that weather.”