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Wicked weather

by Bill Lavender

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The power of Mother Nature seems to have come together this spring. Besides the tragedy of the multiple deaths and seemingly endless destruction, ag operators have been spared direct blows without significant loss of property and no loss of life. However, the impact to most operators along the Mississippi River borders from Missouri to Louisiana has been substantial.

A devastating combination of drought, tornadoes and flooding have reduced farming acres suitable for spraying by more than 50% for many operators in mid-America to the Gulf of Mexico following the Mississippi River. AgAir Update contacted key individuals on this route of destruction to learn firsthand the effects.

Sandy Wells / Executive Secretary / OkAAA - “Bill, I checked on operators that lived in the El Reno, Oklahoma area or had businesses located nearby. Rick and Tanner Escott (OkAAA September 2011 Fly-In Hosts) said the tornadoes that plowed through Oklahoma came very close to their operation, but they were okay. He also said nearby Helena Chemical Company made it through safely. It appears the a tornado passed between them. Rick said he would definitely be installing a storm shelter for his family. I also checked on a few others - Junior Regier, Terry Thomson and J&C Enterprise. They are all okay.”

Dennie Stokes / Stokes Flying Service / Parkin / Earle, Arkansas - “We are all okay, but Stokes Flying Service has lost somewhere between 3,500 to over 4,000 acres of rice acreage to spray this year. I estimate a reduction of more than 50% in rice acreage. We have passed the planting date (first of June), so those acres will be planted in soybeans. Our farmers are way behind, even on high ground, due to so much rainfall. Hard rains have come through weekly, delaying their planting. We are positioned between the Mississippi River and the St. Francis River. Although the rivers never flooded their banks, the St. Francis floodway held the waters. In doing so, however, this created flooding on thousands of fertile rice land.

Also, the rains took their toll on one of the best looking wheat crops I’ve seen. Our cotton acres will be 50% or less, due to wet fields. Some operators are worse off than us, while others are almost up to normal. Southeast Arkansas has been very dry, almost to the point of barely enough rain to plant. Although, I hear they are cutting 80 bushel per acre wheat, compared to 50-60 bushel average yields.

We were very fortunate to have missed the tornadoes. One passed to the south of us, but didn’t cause any damage. I’ve not heard of any lost aircraft or hangars, but several load pads were damaged.”

Mike Lee / Earl’s Flying Service / Steele, Missouri - Mike Lee operates at the north edge of the boot hill of Missouri. Although he avoided the tornadoes, his area was flooded by excessive rainfall, not rivers breaching their banks. Like Dennie Stokes, he had not heard of any loss of aircraft or hangars from the tornadoes that ripped through Missouri. However, his customers are feeling the effects of more than nine inches of rainfall in May. His farmers planted 24-48 hours non-stop before they got rained out and this has delayed planting and replanting to where Earl’s Flying Services’ rice and cotton acreage will be off by 50% or more. In one instance, Earl’s Flying Services water-seeded (aerial planting in standing water) 3,000 acres of rice, only to have excessive rains stack 10 feet of water on top of it. When it drained, it pulled up rice plants by their roots. Now, it is too late to plant rice. If the fields will dry off, soybeans will replace the rice.

It’s the same story for Missouri boot hill cotton acreage, too late to replant. More soybeans will be planted to replace the cotton. Unfortunately, soybeans planted around Steele, Missouri do not need much, if any, aerial spraying.

North of MIke and out of his spraying area, Birds Point was purposely flooded by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, over 130,000 acres. This was fertile farmland already planted in rice.

Mike operates one AT-802. Normally, he will get behind during rice season, so he calls in nearby Scott Rainey in western Tennessee, who does not have rice work. That may not happen this year.

Bradley Reed / Reed Aviation / Iota, Louisiana - Although many operators were adversely affected along the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River Delta, south of the Morganza Spillway, similar to operators in Arkansas and Missouri, Reed Aviation’s problems are completely different. Bradley Reed, owner/operator, is facing drought conditions and the effects of Clearfield rice. Ironically, Bradley’s fellow Louisiana operators closer to the Delta are in drought conditions for flooded farmland.

Clearfield rice is a genetically modified rice that farmers started planting about 10 years ago in Louisiana. Unlike traditional rice varieties, Clearfield is farmed differently. Because it does not require flooding to control weeds, like weedy red rice, aerial applications have been reduced from 7-8 to four or less.

Seeing the handwriting on the wall, in 2006 Bradley bought a couple of nearby operations, expanding his acreage to offset the effects of the Clearfield plantings. It took ten years for farmers to transition to this type of farming rice, especially the old timers, when they did it was all at once. Instead of flying from “can to can’t” in May, he’s in his office wondering what he could be doing. “I’ve prepared somewhat for the effect of Clearfield rice on my business. It really is not so bad being not as busy in May as we were in the past. Maybe I can take up some golf...”, Bradley jokes.

Along with Clearfield rice, crawfish are taking their toll on Reed Aviation’s rice work. With rice only bringing $18 per hundredweight and input costs at $22 per hundredweight, many growers are looking for ways to offset the loss by farming crawfish in the rice fields. Crawfish typically don’t require Reed Aviation’s services.

Doug Davidson / Davidson Solid Rock Insurance / Clinton, Arkansas
“All of my ag customers avoided having any losses resulting in insurance claims. However, that cannot be said for my general aviation accounts. Many of them had extensive damage.”


Paul Artman / Gary Flying Service / Inverness, Mississippi
“We have been very lucky as far as the weather is concerned. We are now in a drought and wishing for a rain. Knowing a rain could cause a levee to break and flood, we don’t wish too hard. It’s a Catch 22 situation. We need the rain, but we don’t want others to suffer from a broken or breached levee.”

And, wildfires too
Wildfires have scorched over 3.5 million acres, not counting the ones raging in Arizona. This represent triple the average and the most acres burnt in over a decade. In Arizona, in early June hundreds of square miles have been burnt with numerous homes and building.

From Arizona to Georgia, drought conditions persist; 94% of New Mexico and 96% of Texas are in drought conditions.

Why?
Weather experts searching for an explanation of this year’s weather claim the La Niña climate pattern is the reason. A recorded breaking La Niña, born in the Pacific Ocean from cooler-than-normal sea surface temperatures, in combination with altered jet stream flow set the stage for extreme weather. According to meteorologist Steve Bowen, as of late May the U.S. has seen eight separate billion-dollar events this year. In 2008, there were nine. He says the Mississippi Valley flooding has been a $5 billion disaster, while the tornado in Joplin, Missouri may end up being on of the costliest single tornadoes ever recorded (Source: USA Today).

So far in 2011, 525 people have been killed, as a result of an estimated 1,438 spotted tornadoes. The average for this time of year is 823.

If there is one bright spot amongst the havoc brought by Mother Nature, it is the elevated commodity prices. On June 10, corn hit an all-time high of $8.48. Soybeans prices are sky-high at $14.68. When commodity prices are high, farmers tend to spend more money protecting and enhancing the yields of their crops. Invariably, this means more acres will be flown over by ag-aircraft.




Photo captions:

Photos provided by Tracy Stokes, Stokes Flying Service of Arkansas

Lee Ellis’ airstrip with the St. Francis floodway on the other side.

Piggot, Arkansas airport with an AT802 parked on a mound of dirt that was going to be the foundation to build a hangar. Fortunately, the At802 was spared.

The Tyronza River, just north of Earle, Arkansas, starting to encroach over a wheat field that Stokes Flying Service had already flew fertilizer over twice.

A small community in the St. Francis floodway that later had eight feet of water over it.





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