Sorghum resilience tested

Weather plays a monumental role in the success farmers reap. Every growing season has its own share of trials and tribulations, but farmers have learned how to cope, creating new and innovative ways to deal with the challenges Mother Nature throws their way.

Although this year may be off to a rocky start for some parts of the Sorghum Belt, it hasn’t deterred Kansas farmers from continuing with business as usual. As of June 13, the largest sorghum producing state in the nation has put 68 percent of its crop in the ground.

Further north in Nebraska, conditions are seemingly ideal for grain sorghum production. Don Bloss of Pawnee City, Neb., said his sorghum is in excellent condition, and the fields are gorgeous.

“It’s about 6 inches tall here and thriving,” Bloss said. That’s good news considering Nebraska is one of the larger sorghum producing states in the country.

Early planting throughout the Coastal Bend currently has farmers in different stages of harvesting and it should continue into the next couple of weeks. Dry land harvesting is about 80 percent complete with irrigated harvest just starting. Yields are outpacing projections in many areas so far.

Sorghum harvest in the Coastal Bend of Texas. - Photo by: Dale Murden

“The sorghum is doing much better than I thought it would,” said sorghum producer Dale Murden of Edcouch, Texas. “We’ve had no meaningful rain since last October, but this crop has been very resilient.”

Unfortunately, conditions in other parts of the Sorghum Belt are less than ideal. Most of the southwestern United States is currently suffering from a severe drought. Parts of Texas are struggling from the extreme lack of moisture, and the state is well on its way to breaking previous drought records with many recanting the Dust Bowl days. So far, the drought has cost Texas farmers and ranchers a stifling $1.5 billion.

As of June 13, nearly 86 percent of Texas sorghum had been planted, right on track with yearly averages. But as expected, the drought is taking a toll on sorghum, and the grain that has emerged is already suffering immensely from the intense heat and meager moisture. The need for rain weighs heavy on most farmers’ minds as their crops continue to be daunted by heat and wind.

Oklahoma has also taken a hard hit from the lack of moisture. Throughout the Panhandle, specifically in Cimarron county, planted sorghum is nonexistent. Dry conditions have made it impossible for farmers to plant sorghum, and before the beginning of June, it had been 251 days since substantial rainfall descended upon the area. This figure beats the last recorded dry spell, which occurred in 1934 at the height of the Dust Bowl. Jarrod Stewart, a sorghum producer and crop insurance agent in Keyes, Okla., said odds of planting sorghum at this point are extremely slim. Stewart went on to say that without a sorghum crop, farmers will be forced to plant wheat, meaning it will be July 2012 before many farmers see any sort of income, which could have a detrimental effect on the local economy. Repercussions from the drought may be avoided under certain conditions. Farmers can plant sorghum through the end of June, so there is still a window of opportunity left to plant, if it rains.

Even though most of the state is very dry, Kremlin, Okla., sorghum farmer James Wuerflein says sorghum in the north central part of the state has been holding up well. Recent rainfall has provided up to three inches in some areas leaving Wuerflein optimistic about the future of the crop, which should be harvested in mid-November.

Opposite the spectrum of drought, flooding is plaguing most of Arkansas and southern Missouri, where the majority of fields are still under water. Malcolm Haigwood, a sorghum producer in northeast Arkansas said approximately 24 inches of water has flooded the area in recent months. The excess water is still covering fields, making it impossible for farmers to plant. Even after the water dissipates, farmers will struggle with potentially low yielding crops due to a reduced growing season. Almost 90 percent of Haigwood’s sorghum crop has been lost, and he’s left with nearly 13,000 acres of farmland that he currently is unable to farm.

A road sign near flooded Haigwood farmland in northeast Arkansas. - Photo by: Malcolm Haigwood

Haigwood said 1927 was the last time a flood of this magnitude struck.

“This is a 100-year flood, even though the region is still recovering from disastrous floods in ’09 and ’10,” he said. Even so, Haigwood remains faithful and optimistic.

“Farmers have a tendency to handle different disasters very well,” Haigwood said. “They always manage to find a way to come back.”

Well on its way to be a memorable year for the record books, 2011 is sure to be pointed to among the farming community as one of the most significant years in history for obtuse weather, testing almanacs and old wives tales each day. Even with the difficulties this year that may lie ahead, farmers traditionally find a way to unite and preserve, producing a crop that will meet demand and feed an ever-growing population.