Flooding, late freeze place agribusiness profits at risk

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Published: April 28,2008

Too much of a good thing — rain — had the Mississippi River hitting flood levels not seen in 35 years, putting hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland underwater at a critical time during the growing season.

Although Mississippi also experienced tornadoes in April, it is the torrential rainfall that has ag leaders worried.

“With the recent tornadoes, ag had a good number of claims over the state but was not impacted severely in the tornadoes,” said Mississippi Farm Bureau president David Waide. “The weather concern is the flooding around the Mississippi River and the tributaries that feed the Mississippi River. Not being able to get the amount of water down to the ocean is causing a big problem with backwater flooding with fields adjacent to the river.”

With flood levels the highest since 1973, at the height of the flood April 19 there were an estimated 276,000 acres of land underwater in Mississippi.

“It is having an impact,” Waide said. “There is corn that has been planted that is underwater that will have to be replanted. Hopefully, the water will get down in time to replant, but that is doubtful. Winter wheat under water is an even greater potential loss because it was almost ready for harvest, and all the input costs had been incurred. Input costs were aggravated this year because of the increased cost of fuel and fertilizer.”

Around the state

The ag woes didn’t end with tornadoes and flooding. There was also a cold snap in mid-April that caused damage across the state.

“Everybody has concern,” Waide said. “Up in the northern part of the state, we’re not real sure the extent of damage as a result of the freeze. Last year, we lost a substantial part of the crop in Mississippi because of a late freeze. We believe the damage will be less than last year because the crops were not quite as advanced as when the freeze hit last year. To my knowledge, the temperature didn’t get quite as low and stay low as long as last year.”

Fruit crops were damaged as a result of the freeze because it doesn’t take much cold weather to kill the buds that form a fruit. But it will take time to determine the extent of the damage.

“The peach crop in the northern part of state, I think, is a total loss because of the freeze damage,” Waide said. “And I think it is going to impact the blueberries in the southern part of the state because we did get below freezing for a while.”

Andy Prosser, spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, agreed there could be a big economic impact from the weather problems. He said the biggest impact is expected with winter wheat with corn acreage also impacted.

“We’re seeing right now a lot of fields of winter wheat that will be totally destroyed and some fields that will be stunted,” Prosser said. “It will take them longer to mature or their yields may be down because of wet ground or minimal flooding.”

Another important factor — rain has pushed planting dates back. It has delayed farmers getting in their field. That could make a big difference in deciding what crops to plant. There has also been a shortage of soybean seeds. Prosser said as planting dates get pushed back, farmers may elect to plant cotton or grain sorghum instead of soybeans.

But switching crops isn’t always easy. Prosser said that could be a major disadvantage for farmers who booked their crop early with grain elevators. Some farmers also have contracted to sell crops for a certain price.

“They do that at the beginning of the year and their crop has now been affected,” Prosser said. “That puts them in a bad spot for their sales.”

While it doesn’t help them this year, there is a benefit to the flooded fields. Excess silt from the rivers enriches the cropland.

“That is usually your richest cropland, land that has been flooded,” Prosser said. “That doesn’t help them this year, but in years to come those will be some pretty fertile fields.”

Prosser said in the next couple of weeks, Mississippi farmers need a lot of dry weather so they can get into their fields and either prepare for planting or get excess water off the crop that is already in the field allowing them to access damage and engage in farming practices needed such as tillage, and application of herbicides, insecticides and fertilizer.

Shrimp and oysters

The excess rain is also raising concerns for the state’s two biggest marine crops, shrimp and oysters. The Bonnet Carre Spillway near New Orleans has been opened to protect New Orleans by releasing some of the water from the flooding Mississippi River into Lake Ponchartrain. That flows into Lake Bourne and then the Mississippi Sound.

“If that spillway is kept open for too long, what happens is the western part of the Mississippi Sound turns into a giant freshwater lake,” said Dave Burrage, extension professor with the Coast Research and Extension Center. “The vast majority of our productive oyster reefs are in that part of the Sound. A little of that freshwater, up to two weeks, is a good thing. Oysters can survive fresh water that long, and it helps knock back predators bad on oyster reefs like oyster drills and hooked mussels. But much longer than two weeks and we start worrying about the oyster being able to stand that much fresh water.”

The Department of Marine Resources extended the harvest of oysters from those reefs through the end of April even though normally that season shuts down earlier in the of year. The idea is to benefit from the time and expense of planting the oyster reefs by harvesting before the oysters are killed.

The shrimp crop could also be impacted. Hot and dry weather in the spring is great for shrimp production, so the wet weather hasn’t been good.

“The bottom line is if we keep having an inordinate amount of rainfall, that doesn’t bode well for this year’s brown shrimp crop,” Burrage said. “That is true everywhere in the Gulf. Thus far it is not good. But that could change if we get back into a normal pattern for the rest of this month. Those shrimp have been moving in with the tide for the past month to month and a half. They grow fast. Shrimp that fit on the back of your fingernail now will be big enough to harvest in a month and a half.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at 4becky@cox.net.

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