Drought tests farmer's strategies for dealing with extreme conditions

Portraits of the Drought: Second in an occasional series

CASH, Ark. -- Joe Christian was riding 10 feet above one of his fields, using computer controls to direct his combine to cut the 75 acres of rice planted amid a series of levees.

Despite this year's drought, the levees enabled Mr. Christian to keep his fields flooded with water from the Cash River that runs through his property and, when the river got low, with well water pulled up from 100 feet below.

It's more expensive to move water to the fields than letting it fall from the sky as in normal years, but in Arkansas -- where the U.S. Drought Monitor has classified more than 90 percent of the state as experiencing severe, extreme or exceptional drought this year -- the crops are still growing.

Jennifer James, a farmer in nearby Newport, Ark., who earned a degree in agricultural business at Arkansas State, said farmers here learned to irrigate years ago, unlike those in Indiana and Illinois where the corn is barely 4 feet high and burned out.

"When you look at that drought map, Arkansas is the worst state," she said. "Our grass is dead, our trees are dying, but you look at our crops and they look pretty good. I kind of feel a little guilty, but we put a lot of capital investment in those fields to get water on them."

Ms. James' farm, owned by her family, the Hares, grows rice, corn and soybeans. The irrigated beans are now flowering on 4-foot high plants. Those out of reach of the irrigation system are a quarter that size, and haven't produced flowers.

But it's the rice in Arkansas that is the big unknown. Until the crop is dried and milled, the impact of the drought on the quality can't be assessed.

Farmers were able to get enough water into the fields to grow the 1.3 million acres dedicated to the crop in Arkansas, making it the nation's largest rice-producing state with nearly half of the U.S. crop. According to the USA Rice Federation, rice contributes more than $1 billion to the Arkansas economy.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported last week that 64 percent of the rice crop was in good or excellent condition. But the condition of the plants in the field may not be a good reflection of the condition of the rice once it is dried and the husk is removed.

While Mr. Christian was able to keep water on the crop, the nights may have been too hot to allow the plants time to rest, further drying them out and making the rice more chalky.

Charles E. Wilson Jr, interim director of the Rice Research and Extension Center, has heard the yields have been good so far, but, "I've heard a few reports that the quality is not good and not as good as they had anticipated." Those, he stressed, are just the initial reports.

A grain of premium rice has a sort of translucent quality, but when the plant has been stressed, the grains look more like white chalk. Chalky rice does not cook evenly, leading to burning or under-cooked rice.

Arkansas rice has a strong domestic presence. Anheuser-Busch uses Arkansas rice in its beer, and while the company used to buy what was called "brewer grade" rice, it now buys premium rice to maintain consistency in the beer, Mr. Wilson said. Food companies such as Kellogg Co., Gerber Products Co. and Mars Inc. are also major buyers.

Arkansas rice also is sold on the foreign markets, mostly to Mexico, but if there is a quality problem, those sales will be hurt.

That's what happened in 2010, Ms. James said. The yield looked good, but the rice was too chalky to be worth much. She said there are still grain bins in the region with unsold rice from that year.

This year she is hopeful, she said, because the nights weren't quite as hot as in 2010.

With 2,400 acres here in Cricket County, Mr. Christian used to be one of the biggest rice farmers around. Now, without changing the size of his own acreage, his is now one of the smaller operations because neighboring farms consolidated.

While the yield is respectable -- Mr. Christian said he is getting 175 bushels of rice an acre, though he would prefer 200 bushels -- not knowing the price he will receive has him wondering if he is going to go into debt or stay afloat this year.

Farming is all about arithmetic.

Mr. Christian has purchased 75,000 gallons of diesel fuel to run his equipment, mostly to operate the pumps to irrigate the fields. The average cost of that is about $3.28 a gallon. He has calculated that his cost to get a crop in -- which is the combined cost for seeds, diesel, water and fertilizer -- is running about $600 an acre. The cost of his equipment, such as the $350,000 combine and the $60,000 header he uses to harvest rice, is not part of that equation.

He said he needs to sell his rice for $7 a bushel to break even, $8 to make a profit.

Rice was selling for around $6.62 a bushel last week.

"We're gambling," Mr. Christian said. "We're the biggest gamblers because we depend on the Lord for rain."

He said he depends on rain to keep the Cash River flowing so he can flood his rice crop. Irrigating from the river uses just a third of the diesel fuel of irrigating from wells.

Ms. James' family irrigates its nearly 6,000 acres by flooding them from so-called poly pipes, which are like soaker hoses in a 10-inch diameter. The pipes are rolled out just after the fields are planted. In a normal year, she said, the corn and soybean fields are watered about three times during the season. This year, they watered the fields every week, flooding them to a few inches high, then letting the water soak into the soil.

At this point in the season, Ms. James said, rain would be more of a hindrance than a help. With the rice crop grown and the harvest starting, the farmers have drained their fields. A dry field makes the harvest easier because it is less muddy.

Ms. James has an application on her computer that tells her commodity prices at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. She checks those prices frequently this time of year. While she pre-sold about half of her corn crop at about $6 a bushel, this last week corn was selling at $7.41 a bushel.

Like a stock trader, she is watching the prices closely to determine what she'll get for the remainder of her corn and for the rice that is coming off the farm. She knows she is not going to get the top price, but she hopes not to hit the bottom for the year.

"Farmers are eternal optimists with short memories," she said, quoting an old saying. In some years, she added, that's the only thing that keeps them going.

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Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699. First Published August 26, 2012 4:00 AM


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