UAPB hosts multi-agency drought response meeting

The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff hosted the third in a series of regional meetings sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Wednesday that brought together representatives of government agencies and non-profits at the national, state and local levels to assess drought recovery strategies in the wake of this summer’s extreme weather conditions.

Joshua Barnes, with the Economic Development Administration of the USDA, said that the multi-agency approach allows each person to learn from others and to impart their specialized knowledge to their fellow participants and provides the opportunity for group brainstorming on the issue.

“We are linking people from Washington, D.C., and the regional offices to talk about potential strategies to deal with the effects of the drought,” Barnes said. “We are looking at ways to mitigate the consequences of what in many cases is a multi-year drought. This is the third consecutive year for drought conditions in Arkansas.”

“The drought doesn’t just affect farmers,” Barnes said. “It is also a community issue, an economic issue. There is a mental health aspect to this as well. It is difficult to specifically define what a drought does. This year’s drought has been called a flash drought in that it came on so suddenly and with such severity in the same way a flash flood occurs.”

Arkansas state Sen. Stephanie Flowers said the topic of infrastructure integrity was of particular interest to her.

“What impressed me the most is that we need to improve our infrastructure,” Flowers said. “The drought affects the roadways and water pipes. There are several rural communities in the five county area that I serve with water delivery systems that are in desperate need of replacement. When you lose your water system people are going to leave. Many people have trouble with both water pressure and the quality of the water that comes out of their faucets.”

“My one regret is that many of the mayors from these rural communities are not here to provide their input,” Flowers said.

Carole R. Engle, director of the UAPB Aquaculture/Fisheries Center of Excellence, discussed the heat-related difficulties experienced by Arkansas fish farmers this year.

“Fish farms in Arkansas are family farms and they are major contributors to the local economy,” Engle said. “The economic impacts are quite substantial. The drought had several different impacts on these farmers. The heat and lack of rain forced the farmers to pump more water which cost them more money. Fish feed prices more than doubled. Catfish farmers had to absorb this extra cost because the low cost of imported catfish meant that the farmers here could not pass their increased expenses on to the consumer.”

Engle said that temperature variations affect fish much more than other types of animals and that the summer’s heat and lack of rain had a pronounced effect on fish in Arkansas.

“The temperatures we had this summer were so far above the upper maximum range for these fish that catfish farmers were hit hard by loss of many of their fish,” Engle said. “Hot water holds less oxygen than cold water and the aeration rates have gone up to increase oxygen for the fish. There were ponds in the state this summer where the water temperature on the bottom were at 99 degrees for a full month. The fish could not sand that stress.”

Engle said that six billion live fish are shipped from Arkansas every year.

“The top two FedEx customers in Arkansas are both fish farms,” Engle said. “The state ships bait fish and sport fish throughout the country.”

Leslie J. Glover, UAPB Associate Dean for Outreach and Technology Transfer, discussed several of the challenges encountered by small family farmers.

“These small farmers are at tremendous risk because many of them have no crop insurance,” Glover said. “The management of herbicides is also a tremendous problem for them because many of them do not have an irrigation system and without water the herbicides are not activated. Many of the crops did not perform nearly as well as they should have this summer. Crops matured early due to the excessive heat and farmers had a hard time harvesting them because they normally need several weeks in between harvests.”

Glover said many small farmers only get the minimal amount of insurance which is not enough to compensate them adequately in the event of loss.

“The last Farm Bill had a lot of things to aid small and limited-resources farmers,” Glover said.

Glover said farmers are being encouraged to make more use of surface water for irrigation because of the lowering water levels in the Mississippi Valley Alluvial Aquifer that most area farmers currently rely upon.

The USDA has also held drought recovery meetings in Omaha, Nebraska and Pueblo, Colorado.