The stubborn drought in Louisiana and Mississippi is driving up produce prices, but Black farmers are taking hits in unexpected places and catching the worst of climate change, as predicted.
Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner Andy Gipson said the economic burden of the months-long drought and triple digit temperatures have blazed away many crops in the southern half of the state, and damages are still being tallied as two-thirds of the state succumbs to lack of rain.
“I would venture to say every crop south of Interstate 20 is not going to make this fall because of the dry weather. It is the hay fields, our livestock producers’ pastures, peanuts, cotton in particular,” Gipson told reporters.
Lower yields are making more people compete for fewer produce and driving up supermarket prices. Fields are so crisp and empty that cattle are unable to gain weight, and cattle farmers are selling off new calves at a loss. More than 3,000 heads of cattle recently changed hands in stockyards in Forest, Mississippi, primarily because of drought.
“It is so dry around here. People ain’t got any grass for the cows to eat,” stockyard owner Dave Tadlock told reporters. “They’re pulling the calves off the cows, selling them much lighter, because they’re not going to gain any weight on the pastures.”
While Black farmers in Mississippi’s fertile delta region managed to dodge the worst of the drought this year, climate change is now hitting their sales. Up in Tallahatchie County, farmer and nonprofit owner Marquitrice Mangham is in the middle of her harvest. It’s now mid-September and farmers like her have already grown their crops. The rain normally does whatever it wants this time of year without consequences, but the dogged drought is plaguing transportation.
“The biggest problem for us is that many of us are unable to export our harvest because the Mississippi River barges aren’t moving,” Mangham told BGX. “This means the grain elevators aren’t taking as much grain because they can’t ship it out.”
For most Delta grain farmers growing corn, rice and soybeans, low-technology barges are still the only available method for moving grain out to national or international ports on the Mississippi and Louisiana coast. The state’s river-based transportation infrastructure has endured for centuries, evolving to carry the produce of 7,000 square miles of fertile Mississippi farmland, not to mention thousands of additional miles of farmland in neighboring Louisiana. Railroads and trucks can’t possibly adapt to move that kind of volume.
In times of low water, larger, wealthier farmers commonly use huge grain bins to hold and protect vulnerable seeds from moisture and pests. When water levels rise again, they haul it back to river barges for transportation. Nothing is lost for wealthy farmers and agribusinesses, merely delayed. But that’s not the case for small farmers, particularly Black and minority farmers.
“People like myself are concerned because I don’t have a grain bin. I don’t have a place to store the crop,” Mangham said. “I have no choice but to harvest it or it’s going to rot in the field, but I still don’t have a place to keep it. This is impacting a lot of small farmers who can’t take crops to elevators right now.”
Small farmers faced a similar issue last year when river levels dropped, but Mangham and others say a spate of “salvation showers” arrived at the last minute to raise water levels for quick transport. It’s late-September now, however, and the only rain Mississippi is getting is spotty. In the days of climate chaos, rain is instead flooding the nation’s northeast territory and dealing death in normally arid north Africa.
“Last year, the drought didn’t impact us as much and we were still able to cut our crop before we lost it, but I don’t see anything in the forecast that could make a difference,” Mangham warned. “Next year, if I can, I’ll invest in a grain bin, because this is the second year in the row this has happened.”
Many Black farmers don’t have the luxury of investment, however. A 2015 report by the Mississippi Soybean Promotion Board calculated costs for storing and drying soybeans. The numbers vary by bin size, with a single 10,000-bushel grain bin running $41,118. This includes a heater, five-horsepower fan, two stirring augers, and an auger for filling the bin. A more generous 48-foot grain bin with a capacity of up to 30,000 bushels carries a total construction cost of $110,664 per bin.
Bins typically have a lifespan of 20 to 25 years, which is shorter than the life of many home mortgages. And none of these figures include the cost of maintenance. Additionally, many Black farmers rent their property, making new construction like the installation of a grain bin impossible.