Dry weather, shipping snags compound issues for Arkansas soybean growers
A lack of summer rain in southern and Midwestern states could mean reduced soybean yields in Arkansas this harvest season.
Following a wet spring planting season, growers have had to contend with an unusually dry summer with some parts of the state not seeing rain for as many as two months. That, coupled with rising energy prices, has raised input costs for growers of Arkansas’ most common row crop, soybeans.
Hallie Shoffner is a sixth-generation soybean farmer and CEO of SFR Seed based in Newport. She says some growers aren’t able to afford higher fuel costs to run the irrigation wells needed to keep their crops watered during the drought.
“I know a few cases in which farmers simply ran out of money in the middle of the year and turned their wells off… blowing through our energy budget and our irrigation budget was probably the hardest thing, looking at the bottom line,” Shoffner said. “There are going to be a lot of farmers making difficult decisions, including some of our neighbors who have already made difficult decisions, about whether or not farming is even feasible for them next year.”
Water levels along the Mississippi River have fallen due to the dry weather, disrupting shipping around the same time Arkansas farmers are harvesting their crops. Shoffner says barge traffic along the river was stopped entirely for a few days earlier this month, leading to a glut of harvested soybeans.
"Say you’re a farmer without storage and you have a truckload of soybeans and only a few trucks, what do you do with it? If you have a truck that’s got soybeans in it, you can’t harvest another field so you leave your soybeans in the field for an undetermined amount of time, which is very bad for the soybeans and will reduce your yield, the number of pounds per acre you can get,” Shoffner said.
Despite efforts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the river and resume barge traffic, Shoffner says the damage caused by the interruption in shipping has already been felt by growers.
“My understanding is the barges are not carrying their full weight, and there aren’t as many of them. So shipping has slowed, significantly,” Shoffner said. “We did see a drop in prices when the river shut down. Those prices are going back up, thankfully. But for the farmers who were stuck trying to unload their beans during that window when prices were very low, that really hit their bottom line.”
She says growers are also having to deal with higher shipping costs for fertilizer, which is typically transported up the Mississippi River around this time of year.
With the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency predicting more extreme weather events for Arkansas as a result of climate change, Shoffner says the goal for her 2,200-acre farm is to increase soil quality, limiting the need for artificial irrigation while also preventing against erosion during flooding events.
“We need to have soil that can hold more moisture, especially since our soil tends to be a lot sandier than the rest of the state. And the way that we have decided to do that is, we are going completely no[-till] and minimum-till this next year,” Shoffner said. “Every single acre on our farm, we will till it this year and bed it up, and we hope to never till it again, ever.”
While tilling can make planting easier, Shoffner says it causes the soil to lose helpful organic matter and to release harmful carbon into the atmosphere. She says planting cover crops like cereal rye and triticale can create year-round root networks which can also help retain moisture in the soil.
After falling sharply in 2019, soybean acreage in Arkansas has mostly rebounded with about 3.25 million acres planted last March according to the USDA. Despite that, soybean acreage is projected to fall nationally this year by over a half-million acres.
Copyright 2022 KUAR. To see more, visit KUAR.