Wet weather delays harvest from Midwest to South

NEW ORLEANS — Hartwell Huddleston returned the extra combine he bought to help harvest what looked to be one of his best soybean crops ever.

After two months with little letup in rain, he figures he got five days’ of work out of it, and one was spent just looking for dry ground to cut. And the quality of some of the crop he did bring in from his northwest Mississippi fields was so rough, an elevator refused truckloads.

“We’ve had a lot of rainy years, but this one puts those to shame,” said Huddleston, who also sells crop insurance. “If a person’s a farmer you start to think, ‘Where am I going to sleep? How am I going to feed my children?'”

Late-season rains have delayed harvest from the Great Plains to the Deep South, frustrating farmers and raising questions about whether some in the hurricane-ravaged Gulf region would be able to stay in business after disastrous back-to-back years.

The longer the remaining U.S. cotton, corn and soybean crops stay out, the greater the potential for consumers to feel the effects and face slightly higher prices for products ranging from sodas to tofu to meat, said Chad Hart, an extension economist at Iowa State University.

One saving grace for Midwest grain farmers is their corn and soybeans were in relatively good shape heading into the recent rainy spell, and expectations remained high for a still-large production year. Farmers were taking advantage of this week’s break in weather to try to make up for lost time.

For many in Louisiana and Mississippi, though, the waiting continued. In some cases, it was just too late.

Stephen Logan was weighing whether to tear up his water-logged fields to get at a cotton crop speckled in places with mold, mildew and stains. He said he got 28.1 inches of rain on his northwest Louisiana farm last month, more than he said he’s seen in some entire years, and the shorter days have meant less sunlight to dry things out.

“This was shaping up to be one of the best cotton crops we ever had, but it’s absolutely rotted away on the stalk,” Logan said. “It’s very frustrating and humbling, to say the least.”

While the rains helped erase the remnant drought conditions that plagued much of the region earlier this year, their timing — at the peak of harvest in September and October — couldn’t have been worse.

The wet weather is expected to cost farmers in the two states more than $120 million on their cotton, according to preliminary estimates by agricultural economists and Louisiana State and Mississippi State universities.

For all major row crops, Louisiana farmers stand to lose $275 million in revenue and Mississippi farmers, $371 million, according to the early estimates. This would further compound the losses many producers suffered last year due to hurricanes Gustav and Ike.

“This isn’t a hurricane but in many cases, it’s every bit as bad in terms of impact on quality and yields,” said Kurt Guidry, who wrote the Louisiana State report. When you take the two years together, “most producers are going to have serious financial stress as they move from this year to next.”

And most will need “significant” help, either from the government or another source, to get financing for 2010, he said.

Low-interest loans or other aid may be available to farmers in the handful of Louisiana parishes and Mississippi counties that have been declared federal disaster areas due to late spring and early summer flooding, but state officials are seeking additional help for those affected by the drought and subsequent rains.

“More than ever, Louisiana producers are in need of disaster funds,” state Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain said.

Back in Mississippi, farmer Andy Clark doesn’t know what he’ll do. He put everything this year into sweet potatoes — an expensive-to-produce crop that in a good year can yield strong returns.

This wasn’t a good year. Delays in getting into the fields meant potatoes rotting in the wet soil, and even if one were lucky to harvest some, odds were good — given all the rain — they’d rot in the storage house. And it’s hard to justify the labor costs for that, he said.

Of the 82 acres he’d planted in central Mississippi, he’d harvested about four. His side business, hauling potatoes, “is shot.”

“It’s really going to be hard to sit down and talk with the bank. There’s probably not going to be any way to persuade them to give you any more money,” he said. “At this point, you’re probably going to have to ask them to give you a little more time to pay them back.”

“If there’s any way possible, I’ll still farm,” he said. “But you’ve got to look at everything, you know? I don’t know what else I’d do.”

Becky Bohrer/The Associated Press