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‘You plant and you pray’
Extreme drought conditions lowering yields, raising costs for central Arkansas farmers.
As of last week, roughly 75 percent of the state was classified as being in “extreme drought” conditions by the National Drought Mitigation Center. That’s the second-highest classification for drought, based on amounts of rainfall received compared to normal levels. Thirty-three percent of the state fell into the worst drought classification, known as exceptional drought.
The local farming community is feeling the strain of below-average rainfall and hot temperatures, says Argenta Farmers Market manager Christian Shuffield.
Corn and tomatoes have been hit especially hard.
“If it’s over 70 or 75 degrees at night, tomatoes will stop pollinating,” he said. Next to go will be summer squash, and farmers will give up on summer crops and throw their resources into fall produce like winter squash, which he says doesn’t bring in as much revenue as summer produce like peaches and tomatoes … but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The lack of rainfall has meant lower yields and higher costs for small-scale farmers relying on water pumped from lakes or private wells or, for the ones on city water, facing higher water bills.
Shuffield says of the roughly 24 vendors at the Argenta Farmers Market, about half have wells or ponds; the others use city or public water sources. One of the farmers had a $500 water bill last month, Shuffield said.
“The water is affecting the bottom line. If the farmers don’t water, the product dies and you can’t sell it. With well water — most well water — you still have to have pumps to pump it out, and a lot of those pumps take gasoline or diesel, and they’ve got to run it more often to irrigate, which isn’t as expensive as Central Arkansas Water, but it’s still affecting their bottom line for that month.”
The Argenta Farmers Market is made up entirely of Arkansas-based farmers. Most are working with 20 acres or less, and the drought has caused a drop in vendors at the market.
“If they don’t have too much to sell, it won’t make it worth their while to come down [to the market]. Last Saturday, we were down six vendors. They didn’t have enough to sell, or it was too ugly to sell, or they needed to take a break,” he said.
“We have seen our revenue decrease at the market this last couple of weeks, just for lack of volume.”
Shellia Kornegay, who owns Kornegay Berry Farms with her husband, says production is down by about 25 percent this year. They’re on well water and use irrigation to keep the berries and vegetables alive on their 15-acre farm in Pine Bluff. It takes electricity to pump the water to the fields, and that has meant an increase in costs.
Eighty percent of the Kornegay farm is devoted to berries, while the other 20 percent is allotted to vegetables. Earlier in the season, the strawberries weren’t hurt by the drought, she said, but later-season berries have suffered.
“As far as our berries, the most affected would be the blackberries and the blueberries, but it’s hard to tell because the muscadines wouldn’t come up until the fall. The peas and corn were affected, too,” she said.
She says these drought conditions are the worst she’s seen since she started farming seven years ago.
“Back in the '80s, my husband says when he was farming then it was this dry, but I think this is probably the worst I’ve seen. You can’t predict what the weather’s going to do. Tomorrow we might have a hurricane, but you plant and you pray.”
Arkansans raising livestock haven’t fared any better.
Katie Short of Farm Girl Natural Foods also says this drought is the worst she’s seen in her years of farming.
“I’ve never seen conditions this dry,” she said. “I would add that I’ve only been farming for 8 1/2 years; before that I was a city person, so I don’t have a long personal history with inclement weather. But in the time that I’ve been doing this, it’s the worst I’ve ever seen. And I have neighbors who have been at this a lot longer say it’s as bad as it’s been since the Great Depression.”
Short raises pigs, cattle and chickens, and the drought has meant more supplementing with grain and tough choices when it comes to the cattle.
“Spring rains usually give us enough grass; it’s called stockpiling, and it piles up in pasture enough to get through hot dry months. But we did not get that spring rain, so we did not get the spring grass. So that’s been the number one concern — is there enough forage to feed our animals, primarily the cows? We supplement the chickens and pigs with grains, and they’re eating more grain than they would otherwise. With the cattle, we’ve had to make some hard decisions, and we’ve started to cull the herd to preserve grass we have.”
While the effect of the drought on fruits and vegetables is immediate, Short says, it’s more far-reaching for livestock farmers.
“Meats we’re bringing to market now were harvested in spring. Animals in the field now will be harvested in the fall and, in the case of cattle, next year. So the effect on those products being available, that’s the kind of time scale that we’re looking at. But in terms of shedding cows, reducing the herd size means two years from now we’re going to have less beef for sale. The time frame of things is different,” she said.
She’s worried about her costs rising in the future, too.
“Think of the range in this drought; much of the grain fed to chickens and pigs is grown in the grain belt in the Midwest, and they’ve been impacted. I’ve seen some forecast of grain prices, and that’s terrifying. It affects the decisions we make in the long-term of our operation in terms of animals we can support sustainably.”
She’s trying not to let the drought wear away her optimism, and says the support of residents goes a long way.
“It’s very stressful and hard not to take those stresses personally. So much of my passion in life is wrapped up in this. It’s not just a day job for me. It is my day job, but not just that. It’s not an hourly wage; it’s my life’s calling. When it’s not going well, it hurts. The more people can do to support their local farmers – patronizing markets, buying what we do have – can really be encouraging in the greater scope of things.”