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Heavy rains flood Arkansas fields

Four days of heavy rain last week left thousands Arkansas row crop acres in jeopardy. Many fields near the White River between Batesville, Ark., and Newport, Ark., were under water or soon would be.

“The Oil Trough, Ark., area is in bad shape — schools closed, bunch of sand-bagging going on,” said Stan Carter, Independence County Extension agent. “Mainly soybeans, corn and rice are planted around Oil Trough. This is all happening, and the White River is yet to crest. We've been hearing that it's supposed to crest in Batesville either late this afternoon (April 26) or tomorrow at around 34.5 feet. The worst flooding is further south, and they're a day or two away from cresting.”

Billie Barber, an Oil Trough city council member, was reached at the besieged city hall. “We're sand-bagging the town,” she said. “Oil Trough sits right on the White River. About two blocks away from City Hall east, the river is over Highway 14. About three blocks west, Highway 14 is flooded. They're sand-bagging the area around the low-lying houses. Fields around town are a mess.

“Over the last couple of years, a bunch of levees have been put up, and that's pushed water onto the town.”

Farmers have been in and out of city hall all morning, said Barber. “They're depressed and worried. I took a call from a farmer just up the river. He's got row crops covered up plus 250 head of cattle surrounded by water. Those cows are on a tiny patch of ground, and he's worried about what to do. The same thing is going on all around here.”

Randy Chlapecka said there isn't much that can be done presently. “We feel pretty helpless,” said the Jackson County Extension agent based in Newport. “Once the water starts going back down our work will pick up. It's scary. Last prediction I saw was 29.5 feet on the White, and it's still rising. Reports are it will crest tomorrow (April 27).

“This is the highest river level since 1989. That means thousands and thousands of crop acres will be under water. This is serious.”

The White River bottoms west and south of Newport are going to be “a big lake.” The Cache River area north of Grubbs, Ark., is also hard-hit with flooding.

Lately, flooding isn't uncommon around Newport. Last year, fields were also deluged. “We thought that one was bad,” said Chlapecka, “but then the river only got to 22 or 23 feet. It's safe to say significantly more acres will be flooded this time — thousands of acres.”

On top of everything, Jackson County is “way ahead” on planting. “We had such a great planting season, and everyone was happy, and the crop looked to be in good shape. All our corn and milo was planted. Plus, we had planted a whole bunch of early soybeans trying to catch that August premium. I hope it's not the case, but I'm worried a lot of those acres will be lost. The rivers are bad, but everything is backed up: ditches, creeks, bayous, you name it.”

In Augusta, Ark., Woodruff County Extension agent Eugene Terhune said the White is currently at 30 feet and predicted to hit 34. Once it hits 31 feet, “it will begin covering up thousands of acres of corn, sorghum and rice. If the water stays on for a couple of days, we'll lose some crops — especially the corn and sorghum. Any early beans will be lost, too.

“It isn't just the river, though. The ditches and tributaries are overflowing. And it's still coming — forecasts have us getting more rain by the end of the week. There are lots of nervous folks around here.”

Back up at Batesville, Gordon Harmon (who farms with his brother, Keith) is looking at the loss of at least 700 acres of corn. In some spots, one of the brothers' fields on the west bank of the White River is 9 feet underwater.

“You ought to have a look at our center pivots swimming,” said Harmon, who hasn't lost his sense of humor. “The water is very, very high.”

How are the Harmon's nearby pastures looking? “Well, some of them look like water. The cows haven't got much to eat, but they've got plenty to drink.”

Are the Harmons going to replant their corn acreage? “I don't think that corn will pull through,” said Gordon. “I'd be afraid to leave it for fear of ‘crazy-top.’ Problem is, if we leave it and crazy-top hits, we wouldn't know until tasseling. We're in the process of figuring out what to do. We're considering all our options — replant beans maybe?

“I know this: we aren't happy. We already had our chemicals down and were raring to go. There are a lot of farmers in the same boat, pardon the pun. I mean, further south, there's water still rising.”

Count Chris Tingle among those in the “worried” camp. The Arkansas Extension soybean specialist said the state has received record amounts of rainfall. Unfortunately, that rain came when “a lot of beans planted in the last week to 10 days are at danger from, if not flooding, then just the excessive rainfall. The beans I saw early last week that were on beds and had good drainage were fine. However, the biggest concern, even then, was the ditches had begun to back up. By now, with all the rain since, those fields may be flooded. Getting water off fields is crucial.”

Temperatures aren't doing farmers any favors, said Tingle. “Waking up this morning, there were high 40s in a lot of row-crop areas. With saturated soils, that's just setting us up for seedling disease and injury.”

Tingle's biggest concern is for the last beans planted. “We're in totally saturated conditions going on five days. These beans don't have any oxygen in the soil and seed rot is a major worry.

“It's weird — the rain pulled a fast one on us. Last week, growers in southeast Arkansas were wet and needing to dry out so they could get in fields. Northeast farmers needed a rain to get Command activated on rice and get beans up. Well, that rain arrived to excess, and the roles have reversed big-time.”

As noted earlier, last year there was a flooding problem in much the same area. But the flooding was in May. “Actually, the floods coming this early may have been a blessing — we've got more time to deal with it,” said Tingle “There's still enough summer left to make an excellent crop.”

Tingle and colleagues are in the process of working up a newsletter to help growers once water gets off fields. “It'll help growers estimate stands, make planting decisions, the pros and cons of all the possibilities. Producers should see the newsletter in the next day or so.”

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