Arkansas has seen its share of extreme weather this year. Back-to-back snowfalls in late winter shut down schools and businesses for days at a time. Severe thunderstorms and tornadoes brought heavy rains and flooding in the spring that killed 18 and, according to Arkansas Farm Bureau estimates, resulted in crop losses of approximately $500 million. Temperatures in some parts of the state reached 100 degrees in early June, the earliest Arkansas has seen such highs, according to the National Weather Service. The U.S. Drought Monitor recently showed over 95 percent of the state experiencing some type of drought, ranging from "abnormally dry" to "extreme drought" in some of the southern counties.
Make no mistake: the Natural State has forever been subject to dramatic shifts in the weather. But no matter what you believe about the reality of climate change, severe weather, higher temperatures, longer growing seasons and the threat of flooding and drought are the new norm for those who live and farm in Arkansas.
Dr. Robert Coats is a professor of economics with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture and has been involved in farming nearly all his life. He's reluctant, as even the staunchest climate change believers are, to attribute the latest round of extreme weather events specifically to climate change, but says the weather over the last few years has caught his attention.
"We've started this year with historic floods, wet weather, followed by dry weather, but the dry weather was accompanied by heat at an extreme level," Coats says. "Whether you want to call it climate change or weather issues, we've had four years of outlier [weather] events ... It has to be addressed. It doesn't matter if you're a hill farmer or a row crop farmer or what."
Ron Bell, a Batesville cattle and tree farmer and the former president of the Arkansas Association of Resource, Conservation and Development Councils, has noticed changes in Arkansas's climate from his days growing up on a farm in the 1950s. After spending time in the military, Bell began his own farming operation in the early 1990s.
"I'm not going to enter into a debate about whether it's something natural, or long-term cyclical change or short-term man-made change, but I can just describe what I've seen in my life as a farmer here," Bell says. "The growing season has been extended about two weeks at each end. But how you manage your crops, both grain, cattle and others, is significantly affected by what happens during that dry period in the middle, which instead of being three or four weeks long is now closer to five or six."
Not only are high temperatures making some types of farming difficult, but it can be extremely costly too. In 2009, some crops like rice and soybeans, had to be planted as many as four times. Those costs ad up, Coats says.
"The heat last year gave us milling yields that the president of Riceland Foods said were the worst yields he had experienced in 40 years. You roll into this year and now you have another wet planting season, you have record flooding and part of the flooding issue is associated with breaches of different levees. Our producers have experienced back to back to back to back challenging planting seasons that have been costly."
Politically, the issue of climate change is a deeply divisive one. Democrats believe in it wholeheartedly enough to get behind cap-and-trade legislation like the unsuccessful Waxman-Markey clean energy bill that came before Congress in 2009. Republicans tend to ignore the scientific consensus around the issue, choosing instead to side with less than one percent of published scientists who raise questions about the conclusions of 99 percent of their colleagues. Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma even said that global warming was the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."
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