Leader Blues

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

TOP STORY >>Corn sweet to farmers

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

New forces are at work shaping Lonoke County’s agricultural landscape, not the least of them the rising demand for corn to manufacture ethanol.

Because of the increased demand and the attractive price, currently about $3.70 a bushel, farmers have increased last year’s 3,000 acres of corn four-fold to about 12,000 acres, according to Jeff Welch, the county’s chief extension agent. While that’s still not a lot of corn acres, it is a substantial move, he said.

On the downside, an early-April freeze knocked back part of that crop, requiring the farmers to replant about 10 percent of their corn, he said. That same freeze killed or damaged a third to a half of the wheat crop, meaning farmers will need a really good year to break even.

“We’ll know more a week from now when we start cutting wheat,” Welch said. Gov. Mike Beebe has declared farmers in Lonoke, White and Prairie counties eligible for disaster-relief low-interest loans from banks.

Other than the freeze and a bit of flooding, the weather has been pretty cooperative this year, getting the growing season off to a good start, Welch said. Grain prices are pretty good overall, including wheat and milo, he added. Overall, however, high costs of fertilizer and energy will make profits elusive.

Not all soybeans are in the ground yet, Welch said, but despite the arrival of soybean rust in the county last year, farmers expect a good price this year and are planting quite a bit.

Rust over-wintered on kudzu further west in Louisiana than in the past, which could mean it will arrive earlier in Arkansas than in the past, bourn on westerly winds. If environmental conditions are correct, we’ll be exposed to viable spores earlier this year than in past. It takes the pathogen, environment, and a susceptible host for rust to take hold.

The soybeans are the host, so if the weather is cloudy and not too hot, the rust will thrive, meaning it will be even more expensive for farmers to make a crop. People would have to spray fungicide earlier and more often at a cost about $35 an acre pre spraying. With fuel and fertilizer already sky-high, it could be tough to make money on soybeans this year.

Meanwhile, farmers are cutting back this year on capital-intensive crops, such as cotton and rice. Lonoke farmers are more likely to ship their corn to feed mills than to ethanol plants, of which there are few.

Arkansas farmers will be paid a premium to truck their corn to Tyson and Wayne Foods for feed, perhaps as much as $1 a bushel, while farmers will be charged 20 cents to 40 cents a bushel to ship corn to ethanol plants. While the colony collapse that’s haunting commercial beekeepers in many states is wreaking havoc with their operations, the situation is not as bad in Arkansas.

Not only does there seem to be less loss of bees, but also the crops here are less dependent upon bee pollination than in some other places. Welch said that cantaloupe, watermelon, cucumbers, squash and tree fruit are among the crops highly dependent upon bees for pollination.