Drought causes Bootheel farmers' irrigation costs to skyrocket

Sunday, July 15, 2012

POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. -- Row crop farmers are spending a lot more on irrigation thanks to the drought, watering much earlier and more often than in years past.

Bruce Goodrich, who farms 3,000 acres of rice, corn and soybeans near Fisk, Mo., says he's had to water rice for more than 45 days straight.

"Usually we don't start watering rice until June or mid-June, and this year it's been quite a bit earlier," he said. "We've had to water some bean ground just to get enough moisture on the ground to bring up the beans."

Goodrich typically plants about 250 acres of "dry land corn," which isn't irrigated, and says the crop is already lost.

"The corn that we can water, it's not so adverse on it other than the fact that we have to pump a lot more, spend a lot more," he added. "The expenses are quite a bit higher.

"It's just an astronomical extra amount of money we're having to spend. I have 54 wells, and I would say that our watering costs are going to get close to doubling what a normal year would be."

He added his mother, who is 80 years old, talks about the last time the area experienced a drought to this degree, in 1953-1954, before modern advances in irrigation.

"They had the same situation here and some of the older folks around talk about it," Goodrich said. "In those years, some of the guys who farm had to go to St. Louis to work in the winter just to survive."

The drought losses stand in contrast to losses Goodrich experienced last spring due to flooding.

"Last year I lost 200 acres of wheat on the St. Francis River, and those same fields are the ones that are in dry land corn this year, and I'm going to lose almost 100 percent of that," he said.

While Goodrich's wells have remained strong, well driller Timmy Douglas with Foothill Irrigation in Poplar Bluff says he's had to drop many irrigation wells 20 feet to keep a good water supply, including five wells for one customer.

"In Stoddard County, it's always been lower there," he said. "That's where I lowered the pumps, just across the river, but it's widespread."

"I've worked more hours than I ever have in my life," Douglas said, adding he's worked 70 to 80 hours per week lately, even some on Sundays.

"I just wish it would rain," he said.

Nelda Burge, office manager for Burge Irrigation in Puxico, Mo., says her husband, Bill, and son, Scott, have responded to calls in Caruthersville, Delta and New Madrid.

"We've been so swamped this summer," she said. "Some of my guys are working 70 hours per week, six days per week, 10 to 12 hours per day to keep up with everybody."

"[Farmers] started pumping a month earlier this year than they had been," Burge added. "Corn has been the issue. We've got most of our rice wells in. Some of the corn is not looking good because it hasn't had water, and the beans are starting to water now, too."

Butler County Farm Service Agency Executive Director Aaron Sandlin said some with nonirrigated crops will be lost, but even those with irrigation are suffering.

"They've got a crop, but a lot of them are looking at electric bills two and three times higher," he said.

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