Miss. harvest in ruin

JACKSON — Unseasonably heavy rain is forcing farmers to leave their crops in the fields to rot, costing them an estimated $377 million.

The soggy weather conditions, which have kept tractors out of the fields, eventually could force some farmers out of business.

Only a small percentage of the 3.6 million acres of row crops — cotton, soybeans, sweet potatoes, corn and rice — was harvested before rain soaked and flooded fields throughout the state.

“I’d say 90 percent of farmers are not done with harvest,” said Leland farmer Kenny Fratesi, who planted about 4,000 acres of soybeans.

“Don’t many want to talk about it (the crops),” he said. “It’s too depressing.”

Before the damage, five crops had an anticipated value of about $1.7 billion, Mississippi State University extension service records show. Considering decreased yield and quality, that value has been downgraded to around $1.3 billion.

Soybeans, the state’s largest crop, take up about 2.2 million acres and before the rainfall had an estimated value of $700 million. John Michael Riley, an MSU extension specialist, estimates that value has fallen to $537 million.

Cotton, the third-largest crop, may be hardest hit by the rain. Only about 2 percent of the state’s 295,000 acres of cotton have been harvested, Riley said. Usually by this time of year, 61 percent of the crop has been harvested.

“There are producers who are looking at a 100 percent loss on their farm,” Riley said.

With too much water, root plants such as sweet potatoes rot in the ground. Vardaman farmer Paul Cook has harvested about 25 acres of the 150 acres of sweet potatoes he planted.

“You can’t get out in the field when water is all over it,” he said. “Everybody’s crop is ruined. It’s all over now. I don’t have a bit of hope.”

Rather than harvesting, Cook has spent the last several days at home or hanging out at Sweet Potato Sweets, a local shop his wife and other farmers’ wives run.

“This is the worst I’ve seen,” said Cook, 77, who has been farming for 57 years.

Earlier this month, Gov. Haley Barbour asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to have its Mississippi office do loss assessments across the state, a preliminary step in earning a federal disaster declaration.

Reports from the state’s 82 counties are due to the local office next Friday, said Ricky Carnegie, agricultural program specialist with the USDA’s Farm Service Agency in Jackson. The reports will be forwarded to the USDA’s Washington office and then be used to determine if the losses are enough to constitute a disaster, or at least a 39 percent loss.

If a disaster is declared, farmers would be eligible for low-interest loans or Supplemental Revenue Assurance, a program that pays farmers based on losses, Carnegie said.

Given that October is typically a dry month, the rain was unexpected. Jackson-Evers International Airport, for example, registers an average of 1.3 inches of rain during the month. So far this month, 7.3 inches have fallen.

Year-to-date rainfall totals show similar excesses. Greenwood has exceeded its year-to-date average rainfall by 15.4 inches. Jackson is up more than 3 inches.

Farmers, who spend months preparing the ground, planting and nurturing plants to maturity, already had experienced a wetter-than-normal spring. They earn their money at harvest time, so a wet field can zap all or most of their annual income.

That might be the case for Fratesi, who runs a store where farmers hang out in Leland. He has been unable to harvest about 2,500 of the 4,000 acres of soybeans. Under normal conditions, he would have finished harvesting by the beginning of October.

By now, he’d normally be getting the field ready for next year. Instead, he and other farmers have been forced to consider the worst: plowing over unharvested crops too damaged to sell.

The same goes for George King, who farms about 5,000 acres in Chatham, about 25 miles south of Greenville where the weather service reports year-to-date rain totals have exceeded normal by 10 inches.

Rather than harvesting, he’s walking some of his 350 acres of cotton to see the damage. The 49-year-old won’t know for sure how much of a loss he’ll have to take on his crop until he can get a cotton picker in the field.

“I thought I was going to pick 1,250 pounds (of cotton) an acre,” King said. “I’ll be lucky to make 750 pounds.”

Plants of the above-ground variety — such as soybeans and cotton — become heavy with fruit near harvest, Houston Therrell with the Rankin County Extension Service said. When the moisture level is ideal, plants draw water from the ground. That water balance keeps a ready-to-harvest plant strong enough to stand straight and ready for farm equipment to roll down the rows.

Plants weighed down by rain in a muddy field can fall. If plants are slanted or leaning over rows, they get run over by machines.

And excess water causes a variety of problems with cotton. If left on the stem too long, the stem and seeds in the cotton will sprout. In some cases, the boll — capsule that holds the cotton — won’t open, so the picker can’t extract the cotton. Left on the plant too long, the cotton will fall to the ground.

“Once it hits the ground, it’s ruined,” Therrell said. “We don’t have vacuum cleaners to suck cotton up off the ground and if you had a vacuum to suck it up, you’d still pull dirt off the ground.”

A cotton crop unharvested can represent a zero return on a $600- to $700-per-acre investment, Therrell said.

Fratesi, 47, has been farming about 25 years and hasn’t seen a field this bad since 1984.

“It took a long time to recover,” he said.

Fratesi would not talk about the financial side of the equation, but it could be dire, especially in this economic climate where banks have become more conservative lenders.

Riley said, “Long term, there are going to be some producers that are hurt and could suffer, either being forced to exit for a number of years or forever if they don’t have the ability to stay in the market.

“They’re going to have to get the funds they need to pay off loans. They may have to sell equipment or land, the stuff they need to be in operation.”

LaRaye Brown/The Clarion-Ledger