An abrupt weather turnabout this past spring has carved out some tough terrain for area farmers and gardeners.
Around 80 percent of Arkansas is experiencing some level of drought. The U.S. Drought Monitor map released Thursday showed the 79.83 percent of the state with some drought rating. Severe drought appeared in 2.19 percent of the state. Moderate drought covered some 35.85 percent of Arkansas.
Jefferson County is currently listed in the moderate drought category, according to the Drought Monitor map.
The state’s spring weather, temperature-wise, started out below normal with an abundance of rain.
John Lewis, senior forecaster with the National Weather Service in Little Rock, said Arkansas experienced its third coolest April on record – and the records reach all the way back to the late 1800s. But once April ended, Lewis said, Arkansas suddenly faced its warmest May on record.
“When we got into May, we kind of flipped a switch,” he said.
Lewis said the average temperature in the state, during the month of May, was 74.8 degrees – or 6.1 degrees above average. He said the hot, dry weather was interrupted from time to time by scattered, isolated storms – a pattern more characteristic of late summer than spring.
“The western half of the state was the worst off,” he said. “Not far behind that would be our (central) part of the state.”
Lewis noted low precipitation rates recently, in addition to the sweltering heat. He said that in June, precipitation in parts of Jefferson County was two or three inches below average, with some areas getting only spotty relief from isolated rains.
“Your neighbors might get rain, and you don’t,” he said.
Stephan Walker, who has a farm about five miles north of Altheimer, also observed the quick change in weather from April to May.
“In the early spring we got a lot of rain, and it was cool weather,” said Walker, who grows crops such as soybeans, rice, squash, okra, peas, pinto beans and butter beans. “It went from winter to summer, and there wasn’t a lot of spring.”
Walker, in addition to being a farmer, works as a multi-county extension agent for the Small Farm Program in the School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
Walker said most crop farmers in Arkansas use irrigation, so they’re able to continue growing through heat and lack of rain – though at greater expense due to the expanded irrigation schedule.
“What happens is that you start irrigation earlier than you (normally) would have,” Walker said, noting that he began irrigating during the second week of June. In some years, he said, “you don’t start irrigating until July.”
Lewis, with the National Weather Service, noted that the lack of precipitation can be especially hard for ranchers.
“If you have row crops, you can irrigate,” he said. “Ranchers with pastures – most of them don’t irrigate.”
That might mean, Lewis said, that ranchers may have to find grass elsewhere, creating additional expense.
Walker also noted that the wet weather in April, which created soggy fields, might have delayed the planting in some cases. And if wet conditions in April spurred farmers to put off their planting, he explained, they might have found themselves placed in tough straits by the sudden onset of the hot, low-rain conditions that followed.
“I’ve talked with a few farmers that we work with who planted in late May and early June, and the conditions were already hot and dry and the seeds just didn’t germinate,” he said.
Some crops have fared better than others. Walker said that corn, a crop that’s planted early in the season, might weather the tough conditions better than other crops.
“Before it gets extremely hot,” he said, “corn has done most of the maturing it’s going to do.”
Bobbie Carpenter Clark, manager of Carpenter’s Produce & Fish in Pine Bluff, said the combination of heat and low rain has hit the store’s locally grown crops hard.
“Green beans didn’t do well,” Clark said. “Pinto beans didn’t do well. Peas were affected, and also squash – a lot of the crops.”
Abraham Carpenter, managing partner of the Carpenter’s Produce family farm in Lincoln County, which supplies produce for the Pine Bluff store, said the weather has driven up production costs. Carpenter, like others, zeroed in on irrigation.
“In a normal year, you have to irrigate,” he said. “But in a year like this, we’re running the pumps 24/7.”
Carpenter said the irrigation costs carry a particularly heavy weight due to the rising prices of diesel fuel. The cost of fuel and other expenses make it tough, he said, for farmers to make a living even in the best of times.
“Even if they have a bumper crop, they will still barely break even,” he said.
But Carpenter said the family business has been in motion for decades, with about 35 members contributing.
“We’ve been doing this for more than 50 years, so we always figure out how to survive,” he said.
The mood in Carpenter’s Produce & Fish also seemed upbeat Friday afternoon, and Clark talked about the value of perseverance.
“You have to just trust God and keep going,” she said. “That’s what keeps us going – our faith. You don’t give up. You can’t give up, especially when this is your life.”
Advice for home gardeners
The weather has also affected people who plant on a smaller scale, in their home gardens.
George Brazeale, who works in plant production for Shell-Ross Co, a wide-ranging gardening supplies store in Pine Bluff, noted that watering and fertilizing are vital in these weather conditions. But he and Penny Hurst, who works in sales for Shell-Ross Co, emphasized that over-watering can lead to problems.
“The main thing is to keep (the soil) moist,” Brazeale said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be wet. Just about any plant that sits in wet soil constantly at some point is going to develop some kind of disease.”
As for farmers, Walker observed that the weather conditions – though rough this year – do not necessarily spark surprise.
“Farmers are used to adjusting to conditions,” Walker said. And those conditions, he said, “are never the same.”