'Completely Catastrophic': Flooding And Tariffs Causing Chaos For Farmers

Jun 3, 2019
Originally published on June 5, 2019 4:46 am

Standing next to his mud-splattered red pickup in Central Arkansas, a tired Robert Stobaugh watches an osprey soar over a field of flooded rice. If anything can survive flooding, he says, it's rice.

"But even rice doesn't like this," he says, looking at the swamp of rust-brown water in front of him.

The fields around Stobaugh's truck are usually planted with soybeans, corn and rice. This year, because of weeks of heavy rain, most of them still haven't been seeded. Of the fields that have, Stobaugh says, many look like the field in front of him that has been swallowed by the surging Arkansas River.

The osprey dives low over the pooled water and ruined crops.

"I'm sure their hunting grounds have been vastly expanded by the water," Stobaugh says with a chuckle. "Tears of joy and tears of sadness are the same color. So if you don't laugh a little with all this stuff, you just about go crazy."

Farmers up and down the Arkansas River, the Missouri and the Mississippi are experiencing an unusual — unprecedented, some would say — combination of circumstances this year that are putting many in a difficult situation.

Weeks and weeks of rain across the Midwest and the Great Plains have kept many farmers from planting crops. Surging rivers have broken levees, flooded fields and brought barge traffic to a halt on some of the nation's biggest waterways.

"Even if I could get a good crop planted and cut, I don't know how I'd move it," says Matt Crabtree, a farmer in the Arkansas River Basin and president of the Farmers Cooperative.

Robert Stobaugh tries driving his pickup down a flooded road on his property. He backs up when the water reaches the wheel wells. "I just don't feel comfortable going any farther," he says.
Nathan Rott / NPR

On top of that, farmers are dealing with the effects of President Trump's ongoing trade dispute with China and the prospects of a new one with Mexico.

"If you just had one individual [issue], farmers would take a loss but it probably wouldn't be all that bad," says Jeremy Ross, a soybean agronomist with the University of Arkansas' Division of Agriculture. "But then you start adding all these together, and it just starts snowballing, and it just becomes this big huge problem."

In Arkansas, like many other parts of the country, the naturally caused problems started early this year.

Intermittent rains through April and May saturated the soil and kept many farmers from planting.

According to recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. corn planting was at its slowest pace in recent history.

At this time last year, the biggest corn-producing states in the U.S. had planted 90% of their acreage. This year, roughly 60% has been planted.

Soybean and rice crops have been behind, too.

We haven't planted rice this slowly in about 25 years. For many farmers, it's completely catastrophic. - Jarrod Hardke

"We haven't planted rice this slowly in about 25 years," says Jarrod Hardke, a rice agronomist at the University of Arkansas' agriculture division. "For many farmers, it's completely catastrophic."

Compounding the problem, the window to plant corn or rice with the hope of still getting a good harvest is closing, and the National Weather Service is warning of more heavy rains later this week.

Farmers who might look to soybeans as a fill-in crop are finding themselves square in the middle of the trade dispute with China.

Transportation and industry have been disrupted all along the Arkansas River. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson says the high water is costing the state economy an estimated $23 million each day.
Nathan Rott / NPR

China is a major customer of American soybeans, but the country has reportedly put a hold on buying U.S. soybeans because of escalating trade tensions.

The Trump administration has announced a $16 billion aid package for farmers who are being hurt by the yearlong trade war between the U.S. and China, the world's two largest economies.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue says the package ensures that "farmers will not bear the brunt" of the trade war.

But U.S. farmers and agriculture workers are now facing the prospect of another trade war, this time with the United States' southern neighbor.

President Trump says he'll begin imposing tariffs on all Mexican goods beginning June 10 unless that country does more to reduce immigration to the U.S. from Central America.

"Mexico is a very important buyer — one of our most important buyers — of agricultural goods produced here in the Midwest," says Scott Irwin, an agricultural economist at the University of Illinois.

Irwin, who has watched the impact of the China trade dispute and the "exceptional" weather events occurring around the country, says it's not all bad though.

Many farmers were facing projected losses this year because of low prices and surpluses of corn and other grains. The fast-fizzling farming season may change that outlook.

"Mother Nature has basically provided a clearing of the decks of our surplus supplies that we needed to get higher prices," Irwin says.

That doesn't take away the sting in the short term for many growers around the country who are reluctant to rely on crop insurance or federal aid packages to soften the blow. And higher prices won't do much for growers who aren't able to produce any crop.

But, Irwin says, the agriculture economy is complicated, and it might take some time yet to see how it all shakes out.

A flooded road and empty soybean fields in central Arkansas. The road is usually about a mile from the Arkansas River, but it has been inundated by recent flooding.
Nathan Rott / NPR

Leaning against his truck back in Central Arkansas, Stobaugh tries to remain optimistic.

"We're not going to lay down and just let this thing steamroll us and go to the house. That's not what's going to happen," he says. "We get an opportunity to get some crops in here and we think we can do anything, we're gonna do it."

With more rain in the forecast, though, and no end to the trade disputes in sight, the prospects for many farmers in his region are looking increasingly bleak.

Acknowledging that, Stobaugh sighs and says, "We have a very slim chance of eking out anything that resembles what we're typically blessed to do."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In this country, the forecast calls for more rain in Oklahoma and Arkansas this week; that's not what people were hoping for in states already facing flooding. What's the flooding mean for farmers? NPR's Nathan Rott takes a trip across their underwater landscape.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Robert Stobaugh steps out of his mud-spattered red Chevy pickup and gives a nod.

ROBERT STOBAUGH: Feel comfortable riding across the water?

ROTT: What's that?

STOBAUGH: Feel comfortable riding with us across this water?

ROTT: Yeah.

STOBAUGH: Lock up and hop in.

ROTT: Yeah.

Stobaugh has been driving around his fields, normally planted with soybeans, rice and corn. Now they're flooded, as are the narrow dirt roads through his fields.

STOBAUGH: We'll watch this and see how deep it gets. I don't have good numbers on this because I've never seen it before.

ROTT: Stobaugh's land sits near the Arkansas River in the central part of the state. But right now it's in the Arkansas River. Jonathan Trafford, the director of the Conway County Office of Emergency Services, is sitting in the front seat.

JONATHAN TRAFFORD: You know, it looks like, basically, the water in the river right now. It's got that - it's got a more reddish tint to it. You know what I mean?

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM)

ROTT: That alarm going off is because the water is now up to the truck's wheel wells.

STOBAUGH: Yeah, I just don't feel any comfortable going any further.

ROTT: Stobaugh puts the truck in reverse and backs out to a dry section of road. Outside, he gestures to a flooded field as an osprey soars overhead.

STOBAUGH: This is just one little spot right here that we're looking at. East of here, it's thousands - tens of thousands of acres are underwater.

ROTT: Up and down the Arkansas River, the Missouri River, the Mississippi and their tributaries, many, many fields are flooded like this. Worse, the weeks of rain have prevented many farmers from even planting. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that at this point last year, 90% of the corn crop was planted in the Corn Belt; this year, it's just over half. Add to that the ongoing trade dispute with China and now the potential for a new one with Mexico, and Stobaugh says the situation is grim.

STOBAUGH: We have a very slim chance of eking out anything that resembles what we typically, you know, are blessed to do.

ROTT: Jarrod Hardke, an agronomist with the University of Arkansas' Division of Agriculture, says it's not just happening here.

JARROD HARDKE: I think everybody's had a pretty rough go. But basically, from Ohio to the West, everyone's in a pretty good state of alarm as to where we go from here.

ROTT: The Trump administration announced a $16-billion package to try to help farmers affected by the trade dispute with China. But a new squabble with Mexico over immigration could hurt farmers more, says Scott Irwin, an agricultural economist at the University of Illinois.

SCOTT IRWIN: Mexico is a very important buyer, one of our most important buyers of agricultural products that are produced here in the Midwest.

ROTT: But, Irwin says, there could also be some good news here for growers. Prices for corn and other crops have been low because of surpluses and other factors. With the weather and flooding, those prices could go up.

IRWIN: Mother Nature has basically provided the clearing of the decks of our surplus supplies that we needed to get higher prices.

ROTT: That doesn't take away the sting of the moment, though, Irwin says. Farmers want to farm, and many have already lost money in their flooded-out fields and now-waterlogged equipment. Back in Central Arkansas, Robert Stobaugh can't help but point out the irony of a big irrigation system sitting in the middle of one of his flooded fields.

STOBAUGH: Tears of joy and tears of sadness are the same color, so if you don't laugh a little bit along with this stuff, you can just about go crazy.

ROTT: So for now, he'll try to keep cracking jokes.

Nathan Rott, NPR News, Atkins, Ark.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACE BUNDY'S "URBAN CHALLENGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.