August 2019 Magazine

Arkansas Farmers Bracing for Flood’s Economic Aftermath

Arkansas

by Tyler Hale | Photography Courtesy of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture

Bobby Crow had just left for vacation when a levee near Dardanelle breached, sending water from the Arkansas River cascading through Yell County. Flood waters tore through his farmland, destroying large swaths of his corn crop and damaging parts of his soybean acreage.

Crow is a lifetime farmer whose family roots in the Arkansas River Valley stretch back more than a century. For decades, he has tended the same land his great-grandfather set up in the late 19th century—the same land his grandfather and his father cultivated. Now that land and Crow’s crops have been decimated by massive amounts of water – a situation that still is affecting farmers and others throughout Arkansas.

“It turned out that we planned a family vacation and left the day before the breach,” Crow says. “It destroyed the crops that were there.”

Multiple fields for hay have been damaged, which will prevent Crow from cultivating several hundred acres of hay for cow feed. Now, Crow is assessing the damage and replanting crops as he’s able. While he says the corn is destroyed, he has been replanting it and running into an unlikely problem.

“We’re having trouble, as much of an irony as it sounds, in getting enough moisture to germinate the soybeans,” Crow says.

This is but one of the stories that has come out of the historic Arkansas River flood. Many more farms, businesses and homes have been impacted by high waters, either directly or indirectly. The economic impact to agriculture, trade and industry is still undetermined but will likely be significant. 

Healthy soybeans before the flood.

While the flood has had a major impact on Arkansas, this event actually began in Oklahoma. In late May, a high-pressure weather ridge built up over northeast Oklahoma, dropping 15 to 20 inches of rain over the state. The elevated rainfall created a dangerous situation at the Keystone Lake near Sand Springs, Okla. 

At its peak, the Keystone Dam, which has an elevation of 771 feet, was facing a wall of water measuring 751.9 feet. Releases were necessary to control the rising waters in the lake. However, this water would ultimately flow downstream into the Arkansas River.

Approximately 250,000 cubic feet of water was discharged from the Keystone Dam each second during the releases. A May 2019 National Weather Service report describes the amount of water being released from the Keystone Dam as “more than double the flow of Niagara Falls.”

John Lewis, a senior forecaster with the NWS office in Little Rock, says the high levels of rainfall in Oklahoma, paired with the Keystone water releases, are the primary factors in Arkansas’ unprecedented flooding.

“We had a ton of rain combined with the releases. And that’s what ultimately led to the flood that we know now,” Lewis says. “We did have a lot of rain in Arkansas and some of that went into the Arkansas River, but ultimately what led to the flood was the excessive rain to the northwest of the state and the releases from the dam.”

The Arkansas River swelled to historic levels in late May and early June, breaking previous records dating back to the 1940s. In addition to the 40-foot levee breach in Dardanelle, water overtopped levees in Pulaski and Jefferson counties. 

Gov. Asa Hutchinson declared a state of emergency on Friday, May 24, ahead of the flooding event and directed the state National Guard to deploy to western Arkansas to help with flood efforts. Thousands of homes, though, have flooded in both Arkansas and Oklahoma. Local officials advised citizens to evacuate their homes as necessary, including in Yell County, as a result of the levee breach. 

On both a human and an economic level, the Arkansas River flood has had a devastating impact. But it’s still unclear the extent of its effects.

Arkansas Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston says the flood’s economic impact cannot yet be accurately determined. However, he says it is clear that it will have a major impact on the state and has affected multiple important industries.

“The short answer is that it’s too early to tell, but the impact will be significant,” Preston says. “Agriculture has certainly taken a hit, as well as industries out at the port that rely on barge traffic.”

Arkansas’ trade has been hampered due to the flooding with virtually all the ports along the Arkansas River, including the Little Rock Port Authority, suffering some fallout from the high water.

“From an overall perspective, the flood of 2019 drastically impacted commercial navigation and it will take 

months for the system as a whole to recover,” LRPA Executive Director Bryan Day says.

Day says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working to assess the damage to the ports and determine what repairs are necessary in order to reopen the state’s port system. According to both Day and Preston, the state’s industry has been hurt by the widespread impact to the river ports.

“Every port in Arkansas and on the Arkansas River was flooded and has had some impact. There are a lot of communities banding together to overcome this,” Preston says.

However, the Little Rock Port experienced limited damages, with the main river dock sustaining minor damage which has been repaired. And there has been a significant amount of silt accumulation in the slack water harbor. The silting issue is currently being addressed.

Roughly 100 barges are still waiting to come upstream to pass through the port. Tows are slowly bringing in the barges to the port, but it will require weeks to restore the traffic to normal levels. Day estimates it will be six to eight weeks before the river is navigable to have consistent traffic.

In the meantime, Preston says companies are having to find alternative means of transporting raw materials and products because of the slowed river traffic. Instead of shipping by barge, companies may elect to ship by rail, which will increase costs. Preston cites a University of Arkansas study that estimates every day the Arkansas River is “closed for business,” there is $23 million in lost revenue.

“You have businesses that are looking for alternative routes to be able to move their product or raw materials to help make their products. It’s impacting everything from agriculture to manufacturing to transportation and logistics,” Preston says.

Agriculture will be taking a big hit from the flood, Arkansas Farm Bureau President Randy Veach says. As the head of Farm Bureau, Veach represents more than 190,000 farm families in Arkansas, and he worries that the flood could have a major impact on farm revenues, driving some farms out of business.

…And after the flood. The economic impact of the flooding in Arkansas may not be realized for weeks. But a hefty negative impact is expected.

“It’s going to hurt the economy of the state of Arkansas, and it’s very possible we’re going to lose some of our multi-generational family farms,” Veach says.

At the epicenter of the flood, the Arkansas River Valley will bear the brunt of the economic impact, Veach says. Throughout the region, untold acres will not be planted, either because the crops were destroyed and it is too late to replant or because soil conditions are now unfeasible to replant. Many of these acres will be covered by “prevented planting,” an insurance provision that covers extreme weather conditions such as floods that prevent farmers from planting crops. 

Even if farmers are able to replant their crops, their costs will increase and revenues will go down. Farm Bureau Chief Economist Travis Justice says farmers will be incurring higher costs than normal due to the additional efforts of replanting or changing their crops.

Prevented planting, though, won’t cover the full agricultural damages the flood wrought. Not only were crops damaged, Veach says, but livestock was hit hard and pasture lands were washed away. Revenue also will be lost due to infrastructure repairs, such as mending fences damaged by the foods, repairing roads and more. 

Crow is one of the Arkansas farmers facing infrastructure damages that will have to be fixed down the line. Not only are the roads leading to and from his farm damaged, but the fields themselves have been severely damaged – something he estimates will take some time to repair. “We also have damaged property where the water made sinkholes and holes in the fields that we’ll have to try to fill in and reestablish,” he says.

The full agricultural impact will likely take another month to see. Justice says farmers are still reporting numbers, and a more complete picture will emerge in the coming months.

“We’re going to bring a crop, but it’s going to be a more expensive crop,” he says.

At both the state and federal level, assistance is expected for farmers. President Donald Trump approved a major disaster declaration for the state of Arkansas, and federal funding has been authorized for those affected by the flood in eight counties in Arkansas (Conway, Crawford, Faulkner, Jefferson, Perry, Pulaski, Sebastian, and Yell). This would provide low-cost loans for uninsured property losses as well as other programs for individuals and business owners.

Offering low-cost loans for farmers is not necessarily a viable solution, according to Crow. “That’s really not the answer that we need. Most of the people I know about already probably owe all the money they can owe. Low-interest or no-interest loans are not helping them a lot,” he says.

Crow acknowledges that federal assistance will be helpful for farmers. In his words, though, “the wheels of that kind of thing go slow.”

Federal funding will allow the state to rebuild critical infrastructure to return to normal and prevent a similar incident from occurring.

“Obviously, having an assessment of where we stand in terms of the damage will be important,” Preston says. “Getting that federal funding is a critical piece of that, and getting those dollars deployed and helping rebuild the infrastructure and in some cases, reinforcing the infrastructure, so we’re not dealing with this again.”

Looking at the economic landscape, there’s a mix of optimism and acceptance of loss. A realization that the state is hurting and will continue to hurt for a period, and a hope for a brighter future.

On the cautious end, Crow admits the possibility that the flood could have a damaging effect on the River Valley’s agricultural future. “Our farming was kind of fragile anyway. This could possibly be the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Crow says. “I hope that’s not true – I hope we pull through.”

Despite the destruction unleashed by Mother Nature, others are preparing for a new day, with the conviction that it will shine brighter for Arkansas.

“Arkansans are resilient and we will rebound stronger than ever,” Day says. “Whenever there is an event like this, we must learn from it so that when it happens again. We will be better prepared.” 

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