LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (Reuters) – After facing a spring of harsh weather, rice farmers in Arkansas, the nation’s top rice-producing state, have a new worry — turtles.
Recent flooding in southern and eastern Arkansas has displaced turtles from their normal habitat in the canals, swamps and low-lying areas near the rice fields, and driven them to seek shelter in the ditches next to the crops.
Now because they are so close to the rice paddies, the reptiles are damaging plants already left fragile from flooding and drought in parts of southeastern Arkansas, researchers said.
“This is very rare,” said Ralph Mazzanti, an agricultural extension rice-research coordinator for the University of Arkansas. “So far, we have seen it in one county, but over about 300 acres and in several rice fields.”
Turtles have damaged about 10 percent of Mazzanti’s research rice field, and he said that could increase.
The rice strands die when turtles cut the plants off at the base, and the plants float to the top of the water. Rice strands were already thin because of early flooding this spring, and many of the fields were underwater for nearly six weeks, Mazzanti said.
With lingering floodwaters luring displaced turtles to seek refuge nearby, farmers are trying to find ways to lower the water levels to discourage them.
Mazzanti said he did not know what type of turtle was eating the plants because they hide under the mud.
Arkansas crops account for about 48 percent of U.S. rice production, according to the Arkansas Rice Federation. The state is the world’s third-largest exporter of the grain.
The turtles are only the latest concern for rice farmers. Agricultural experts estimated the floods could stifle as much as 10 percent of rice planting in Arkansas this year.
Arkansas rice farmers have battled both flooding and drought this year in various parts of the state. Some farmers in eastern Arkansas near the Mississippi River have lost more than 2,000 acres of rice.
The flooding of the Mississippi and extreme weather in the spring wreaked havoc on crops throughout the South and Midwest, and rice farmers in the region are facing the aftermath.
Missouri farmers also have suffered from turtle damage, Mazzanti said. In parts of Texas, rats are damaging rice crops, according to agriculture reports. In Louisiana, rice farmers are battling saltwater intrusion in fields. Stink bugs may become a potential problem this summer for Arkansas growers.
During the Mississippi River flooding crisis in May, white-tailed deer left their habitat near the river in eastern Arkansas and retreated to agricultural fields, destroying some bean crops.
Keith Stephens, spokesman for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, said deer are returning to their normal habitat.
That, at least, is some good news, Mazzanti said.
“Rice farmers really don’t need any more problems, and they don’t need to lose any more crops,” he said.
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