Standing on a shoreline crusted with a motley assortment of logs, barrels and bits of trash, Jeff Rutledge is a prisoner beside his own farmland, hemmed in by the caprices of Mother Nature. He stares at a lake that has covered his corn and rice with 10’ of water, sealed off the road to his shop and cut off access to pockets of equipment. When the water recedes and leaves behind washed out soil and mangled levees, he’ll face 30 days of true dry-down on the lowest ground, an eternity for a farmer with the future at stake. The sobering reality of agriculture: Yesterday’s high water can be tomorrow’s ruin.
After an early planting kick-start to the crop season, torrential rains blanketed northeast Arkansas and Missouri Bootheel farmland in late April and early May, unleashing a weather pattern witnessed multiple times during the past decade. Already saddled with anemic commodity prices, farmers are forced to absorb the crippling effects of another flood. The disaster raises a tangle of questions about crop insurance, risk and water management.
With 977,800 acres of cropland affected by flooding in the Natural State, University of Arkansas estimates place total damage to state agriculture at $175 million, and possibly as high as $210 million.
With the Black, Cache and White rivers (and several smaller channels) threading the region, backwater is part and parcel of farming in Rutledge’s Jackson County area, but he says the past 10 years have featured consistent flooding. Standing on a raft of turnrow vegetation and pointing across several hundred yards of water toward the still visible metal roof of his grandfather’s barn, Rutledge, 43, says high water was rare during his childhood: “When I was a kid, the water just wasn’t like this. My land has flooded to some degree during the growing season in 2002, 2004, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2015 and now it’s happened again in 2017.”
Even with prices down, Rutledge started the season in March with high optimism, hoping early planting would translate to better overall yields. When the rains fell, Rutledge had 500 acres of corn in the ground and 1,000 acres of rice planted -- levees up and ready to go. (The water swallowed all the corn and 800 acres of rice.)
With current wafer-thin margins as rickety supports for the farm economy, the consequences of water damage are grave. Crop insurance only covers a varying percentage of loss, with a multitude of other expenses slipping through wide cracks and landing squarely on producers. Levee construction, washed-out roads and turnrows, gravel removal, clogged ditches, debris extraction, silt removal, equipment damage, pivot repairs, soil fertility issues, precision land level fixes and many more related expenses pull directly from farmer pockets.
“Crop insurance takes care of a percentage of a planted crop’s revenue involving direct costs. But until you are affected by a flood, people don’t realize the amount of indirect costs that aren’t covered,” Rutledge explains.
Shannon Davis, 43, farms to the northeast of Rutledge in Craighead and Lawrence counties, and has roughly 3,000 crop acres affected by flood water. Despite historical damage in 2011, he says 2017 is worse due to early planting and sustained high water: “Sometimes the public thinks crop insurance takes care of our total losses and we get right back to business. They don’t know high-ground crops can offset low-ground crops and leave you with almost no coverage. It’s complicated and so much gets missed, particularly out-of-pocket expenses.”
Andrew Grobmyer, executive director of the Ag Council of Arkansas, says the next farm bill needs crop insurance review: “We’ve got to determine how these policies can be reformed to assist farmers more in natural disaster scenarios like we’ve seen in 2011 and 2017.”
With water sitting on his fields, Rutledge is struggling with slippery replant questions, unsure how the May 25 deadline and 15-day extension will affect his operation. If crop insurance agents deem it “practical” for Rutledge to replant, he’ll be forced to abide by the decision and begin tearing out levees and smoothing ground in a chaotic rush to get a drill back in his fields.
Rutledge knows late planting is a powerful drain on yield and another avenue of major expense. “Extension data and NASS data show anything planted around here after the middle of May loses exponential yield. Plus labor, fuel, seed and chemical costs all come knocking again,” he says.
Grobmyer believes new regulations requiring replanting of rice up to June 10 will be harmful to producers due to the late date. “We've urged our delegation and Secretary Perdue to urgently pursue a waiver for rice farmers this year based on the unique natural disaster we're facing. We hope they will accommodate this greatly needed fix.”
Although some backwater is standard for northeast Arkansas farming, Davis says the duration and volume of water is increasing, and the situation necessitates more investment in infrastructure: “We need more outlets in our drainage network to keep these flood problems from reoccurring.”
On the White River, agricultural concerns take a backseat to recreation, according to Rutledge. Dams built for flood control are instead used to ensure trout habitat and summertime lake activity, he says: “Some of this flood damage could at least be alleviated if the Corps would release water and plan better instead of waiting until water is on the ground, but the Corps only answers to Congress.”
“They won’t pull the lake levels down properly in winter to protect fish and recreation, and that puts an entire farming economy at risk downstream,” he adds.
Grobmyer is calling on the Corps to make improvements to water management in lake reservoirs, which feed rivers running into crop areas. “As weather forecasting becomes more accurate, it's probably time the Corps looks to incorporate forecast models into their decision making for releases,” he notes.
“Our regional economy is losing hundreds of millions of dollars to these floods,” Davis echoes. “This is not just about a farmer’s crop. These flood events take away huge amounts of revenue from our local economy and the entire region eventually feels a heavy loss.”
Michael Klein, USA Rice Federation spokesman, says water management balance must be restored to protect agriculture: “We’re talking about catastrophic losses for some producers. Risk must be reduced for farmers to keep risk from affecting our entire food system.”
“There is so much uncertainty in farming and the public doesn’t realize the money at risk. Farmers take everything they are worth and put it in the ground every year, depending on getting a crop out of it,” Klein adds.
After the Flood
Rutledge wears a worn look as he points across the temporary mocha lake toward a 1,000’ metallic spine rising just above the waterline, the only visible section of a pivot almost entirely submerged beneath the flood. At best, he knows insurance bandages only will cover a portion of his financial wound. His voice drops as he sums up a farmer’s grit: “I depend on God through the good times and the bad times. Right now, I’ve got to wait for the water to fall out and then get back to work.”