CHICAGO Nearly 3 million acres of farm land in three southern U.S. states have been submerged by flood waters from the raging Mississippi River and its smaller tributaries, adding to troubles in seeding this year's crops in the world's top grain exporter.
Although the area constitutes 1 percent land seeded with major crops in the United States, the loss comes at a time when grains have soared due to dwindling supplies, weather woes in other exporting nations and increased consumption.
From Tennessee to Arkansas to Mississippi, flood waters caused by melting snow and excessive spring rains have inundated crops like corn, soybeans, wheat and rice or delayed their seeding beyond dates for optimal yields.
Rice will be the crop most affected, with farmland responsible for 10 percent of the U.S. rice crop unlikely to be planted.
"I've never seen anything like this and I've been farming for 31 years. This is a once in a lifetime flood," said Joe Christian, a 48-year-old second-generation farmer in Jonesboro, Arkansas, about 60 miles northwest of Memphis.
"It's way too late in the season to plant corn but I'm going to have to replant some of it anyway because I have no choice. I had a lot of it presold," he said.
Water from the swollen Cache River, which has backed up due to the volume of water flowing down the Mississippi, has swamped 950 acres of Christian's rice crop and 150 acres of corn, which he will likely replant once the water recedes.
Farmers across the region will be facing similar dilemmas in the coming weeks as many have already sold a portion of their crops to lock in record or near-record prices.
Benchmark U.S. corn futures hit all-time highs of more than $7.80 a bushel last month amid the tightest supplies since the 1930s and soybeans peaked at near three-year highs around $14.50 a bushel in February.
Wheat prices were near peaks not seen since the food crisis of 2008 after a string of overly wet or dry weather, including the driest conditions in 40 years in some areas of the southern U.S. Plains. U.S. rice prices hit 2-1/2 year highs earlier this year.
RICE ACRES TO DROP
Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi have each lost or were expected to lose around 1 million acres, but so far only Arkansas has detailed figures on how much of each crop has been affected.
Nearly 300,000 acres of rice in Arkansas, or about 10 percent of total U.S. acreage, might not be planted due to flooding, said the Arkansas Farm Bureau. Arkansas produces about half of the rice grown in the United States, the world's third-largest exporter of the grain.
U.S. rice prices were only moderately higher on Tuesday despite the dire outlook for the Arkansas crop.
"Part of the problem is that demand hasn't been all that exceptional and we have plenty of old-crop stocks," said Price Futures Group analyst Jack Scoville, referring to rice stocks left over from last year's harvest.
"There's going to be some significant abandonment, especially anybody who farms along the river, but the rest of the rice could be doing better because we've had all this rain," Scoville said.
Cotton, corn, soybeans, sorghum and wheat are likely to suffer more minor impacts compared with rice.
Heavy snowmelt and excessive spring rains have swelled the Mississippi River and its tributaries throughout the central United States, swamping towns and flooding farms. Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee have been hard hit by the flooding, the worst since 1937.
About 120,000 acres of winter wheat, representing about 22 percent of the Arkansas wheat crop, may be abandoned just weeks from harvest, the farm bureau added. However, the loss is just 0.2 percent of the total U.S. winter wheat acreage of 41.2 million acres.
The floods also stalled the already-late seeding of corn and cotton acres, which may be shifted to the production of soybeans, which can be planted later in the season.
"We aren't likely to see significant activity in these flooded areas until June 1, at the earliest," Warren Carter, director of commodity and regulatory affairs for Arkansas Farm Bureau, said in a release.
"There is an awful lot of water that still has to move through our river systems, and significant drying will have to occur before our farmers can begin the difficult work of reworking their ground."
About 900,000 acres of farmland in Mississippi was flooded or expected to flood as the Mississippi River crests in the coming days, although damage estimates were difficult to determine, according to Mississippi Farm Bureau estimates.
"There is a good chance that many farmers will not have time to replant this year since many fields will be wet until mid- to late June," said Greg Gibson, director of public relations.
"About 95 percent of the corn, soybeans, and cotton had already been planted in the lower delta near Vicksburg."
In Tennessee, early estimates indicate that about 1 million farm acres may be under water, swamping yet-to-be-harvested winter wheat and stalling planting of corn, soybeans and cotton in the area, Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation spokesman Lee Maddox said.
"Most of our farmers have not seen flooding like this in their lifetimes, the worst since 1937," said Lee Maddox, spokesman for the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation. "It will be weeks before we know the full extent of the damage."
The Mississippi River reached a near-record crest in Memphis, Tennessee, on Tuesday and may top records set in 1927 and 1937 further downriver, according to the National Weather Service.
(Reporting by Karl Plume; Editing by David Gregorio, Lisa Shumaker and Cynthia Osterman)