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Dry Weather Devastates Crops, Doubles Disaster Declarations

STORY BY Avery Davidson and Neil Melancon

Clouds of dust trail Sonny Kirby’s combine as he harvests what beans he can—it’s a sign of just how dry it’s been on his farm near the Louisiana-Arkansas border north of Shreveport.

With it so dry right now, it’s hard to believe just a few months ago the same dry 100 acres were completely covered in backwater from the Red River. The unusual conditions have seen disaster declarations for both flooding and drought this year.

“I’ve never seen any spring like we had,” Ryan Kirby said. “We had the Red River crested at the highest level it’s been since 1945.”

The bitter irony for Ryan Kirby is that after replanting from the flood, he had to irrigate those same beans.

Sonny Kirby’s combine kicks up a cloud of dust on their farm north of Shreveport.  It’s more dust and dirt than beans, as yields have been less than one-fifth of what they were this time last year.  

Sonny Kirby’s combine kicks up a cloud of dust on their farm north of Shreveport.  It’s more dust and dirt than beans, as yields have been less than one-fifth of what they were this time last year.  

“I lost a little more than 100 acres from the Red River flood backwater,” Ryan Kirby said.  “Some of that field was planted in May. Part of it was replanted in July. We’re actually harvesting right now the part of the field that was planted in May and I’m still irrigating the part of the field that was planted in July.”

There’s a line in the field where he’s harvesting that tells the story. On one side, green soybeans from the replanting in July. On the other side, the areas which survived the flood but then got hit by drought and now is nothing but dried, cracked dirt and withered soybeans. Ryan Kirby said that in these areas he’s already harvested, he’s only seeing about five to 10 bushels per acre, a far cry from the record year of 2014 that averaged 57 bushels per acre across the state.

“I’ve got to give it to these beans, they tried to make a crop,” Sonny said. “I mean, they grew off well and they had lots of pods. They grew to about the size of a BB. They just ran out of moisture and they died.”

Neighbor Stephen Logan has had similar experiences with his crop on his farm near Gillam. He had no idea as he watched the fireworks on the Fourth of July that he’d seen the last rain of the summer.

“July the 3rd, we had a nice rain,” Logan said. “After that, we hadn’t had significant rainfall since.”

While his experience with the flooding was not as bad as the Kirbys, he still didn’t have a lot of hope for this year’s crop.

Through the dusty windshield of  a combine, there’s a clear line between the drought-stricken beans the Kirby’s replanted soybeans in July and the green beans that survived the floods in May.

Through the dusty windshield of  a combine, there’s a clear line between the drought-stricken beans the Kirby’s replanted soybeans in July and the green beans that survived the floods in May.

“Well, we didn’t have real high expectations after the spring we had,” Logan said. “We knew we had lost a lot of fertilizer. We knew we had a lot of root damage from standing water and other issues that come with all of that wet weather. We’ve probably gotten a little better crop than we thought we might have and we’ve had good harvest conditions.”

Both Logan and the Kirbys are now in a situation where they are hoping for the dry weather to continue so they can get everything harvested. 

“That would have been the icing on the cake if we had a wet Fall,” Ryan Kirby said of his 1,200 acres of beans and 650 acres of cotton. “That would have been the icing on the cake to make this year just absolutely a catastrophe.”

It might not be a catastrophe, but it is a disaster that could cost as high as $50 million for Louisiana agriculture this year, according to Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry Dr. Mike Strain.

“We are expecting about $30 million to $50 million in losses,” Strain said.  “We won’t know until after the harvest when we compare the yields of this year to previous yields.”

The disaster declaration does open the door for the Kirbys, Logan and their farming neighbors to get low-interest loans from the Farm Service Agency. This might be the only assistance available, even though five to 10 bushels per acre doesn’t even cover the diesel to harvest the beans, it might be enough to stay above the crop insurance threshold. With beans below $9 per bushel, the only thing more scarce than rain might be income for many farmers this year.