July 25, 2021

The Zipline: When rain is not a good thing

Water is central to our lives. We pray for rain in droughts and talk about “showers of blessings.” But on the other hand, too much rain can be devastating. Farmers in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana are seeing just how destructive all that moisture can be.

About a month ago, a storm system dumped 15 to 26 inches of rain in these states in just 48 hours. With so much water in a small amount of time coming after an unusually wet spring, water quickly spilled out of riverbanks and filled ditches.

It covered fields and washed away crops. It devastated homes and businesses.

As communities come together to recover, many farmers and ranchers will try to salvage whatever crops they can, while for some, the season has been completely washed out.

In Mississippi, initial estimates show over $500 million in crop damages and 700,000 acres of crops destroyed. In fields where crops were washed away, farmers will either replant the same crop or try to grow something new since the planting season for most crops has already passed.

Some farmers will try to replant their soybeans in Louisiana for the third or fourth time this year. And in Arkansas, scientists at the University of Arkansas used satellite data to determine that crops on over 600,000 acres have been impacted by flooding.

Bill O’Neal is a farm manager in Bolivar County, Mississippi. He’s been farming for his family-owned partnership for over 20 years and said he had never experienced the amount of rainfall that last month’s storm brought to the area. In the middle of June, he said they were still waiting for the water to go down to see what could be recovered and how they might move forward.

In Little River County, Arkansas, Larry Cowling grows wheat and described how the excessive rainfall has prevented many farmers from getting into their fields to care for their crops. As a result, in his fields, wheat is sprouting and plant diseases are spreading.

Jennifer Sansom, a county Extension agent in the area, shared how she sees similar losses in many fields across the county. Typically, the area would yield around 60 bushels per acre, but this year, she’s seeing most fields producing just 25 to 30 bushels per acre — if you don’t work in agriculture, I’ll just say that’s like having your boss cut your income in half.

And in Louisiana, the June storm came after an exceptionally wet spring that had already dramatically affected planting across the state. Some areas in the state have already received over 60 inches of rain this year.

In many places, fields were too wet to drive in this spring, meaning farmers couldn’t plant cotton. By the time the fields were dry, they had to plant another crop like soybeans.

At first, replanting may not seem like a big problem, but the impact is felt on the farm and beyond. Cotton gins are forced to close when there isn’t enough to process, costing jobs and hurting rural economies. And all too often, when a cotton gin closes for a season, it never opens again.

When farmers have to replant their crops multiple times, they are just trying to hold on for next year, even if it means farming for a loss to get by. Seed and fertilizer costs and payments for land and equipment must be made, even if Mother Nature washes away farmers’ income.

When crises like these impact communities around the country, we need lawmakers to act and help farmers, ranchers, small businesses and communities survive a storm’s immediate and lasting effects. While members of Congress and government agencies often have good intentions, Congress and the federal government can be slow to act.

Farmers in the South are just now getting disaster payments from hurricanes in 2018 and 2019. Some couldn’t hold on this long and were forced to sell off their land to meet their financial obligations.

Now, as we enter hurricane season and the drought and wildfires worsen, we have to make sure aid gets to those who need it before it is too late.

While farmers and ranchers are doing their best to weather these storms, the American Farm Bureau is working with our state and county Farm Bureaus to help where we can.

And our members have big hearts and are also helping where they can, whether that’s bringing hay to drought-stricken areas or helping a neighbor replant fields. But sometimes big hearts aren’t enough, so we urge Congress and the administration to act quickly to deliver aid to those hardest hit by disasters.

Zippy Duvall

Zippy Duvall, a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Georgia, is the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.