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Growers need rain to profit from high commodity prices

The second driest March since 1950 in the Mississippi Delta combined with the Climate Prediction Center forecasting a moderate to extreme drought through June has agriculture officials worried that dry weather could spell trouble in farm country.

“We’re concerned that we are having such an irregular spring,” said David Waide, president of Mississippi Farm Bureau. “We have had extremely deficient amounts of rain, and it is a problem because you must have subsoil moisture to be able to produce a crop. We are having a hard time getting crops started because of the dry weather. A lot of people haven’t been able to plant crops because there is not enough moisture to germinate seeds. We are not off to a great start for the crop year, but that all can change.”

Another factor is that the Easter weekend freeze was devastating to rice plantings. Waide said the jury is still out on freeze damage to corn and wheat. The amount of damage is dependent on the stage of growth.

Tough conditions, high prices

The freeze coupled with the lack of moisture does create problems for producers. And that is especially disheartening because with current high commodity prices, farmers were hoping to produce a good crop for a stellar market.

The drought isn’t confined just to the Delta.

“I think all of Mississippi right now is experiencing lower than average rainfall for this point on the calendar,” Waide said. “February and March are usually two of our wettest months. We came through March for the most part with less than an inch of rainfall.”

Lack of rain also means that underground water aquifer levels can fall, as well as water levels in reservoirs. Farmers use both reservoirs and aquifers for irrigation water. With high costs for diesel fuel or electricity to pump water, farmers were hoping to have somewhat a normal rainfall year to help contain costs.

Because agriculture is the backbone of the economy in the Delta, drought can have a major ripple effect on the entire area, says John Anderson, agriculture economist for the Extension Service.

“Obviously water is critical to agriculture in general and that is the primary industry in the Delta,” Anderson said. “It is very early in the year, so it is important to recognize even though we are behind on moisture, the situation could change dramatically between now and harvest time. Clearly it is a cause for concern, but it is premature to be talking about crop failures and that type of thing.”

Corn planting has been delayed due to lack of moisture in some parts of the state. Corn is a popular choice this year because of high prices linked to demand for ethanol production. Anderson said if not enough rain falls in time to plant corn, that land will likely be planted in other crops like soybeans or cotton.

“Obviously any of those crops at some point will need moisture,” Anderson said. “Rainfall is going to be really critical this year because of so many corn acres, and probably more corn than normal in dry land production. The prospective planning report indicates farmers plan to plant more corn than since 1960. It will certainly be the biggest corn planting in many, many years. So with that much corn and a lot of corn planted in dry land, it will be critical to get rain. Corn is not a particularly drought tolerant crop.”

While prices for corn and soybeans are currently high, Anderson said most of the run up in prices has been since the end of the year. That came after most farmers had sold their crop.

“Most of the high prices won’t be realized by farmers until this year’s harvest,” he said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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