It's a safe bet that last Christmas Day, few residents in and around Arkansas' Little River County had a restful sleep. “The night this happened, it sounded like bombs going off in every direction. I didn't sleep all night. But when dawn finally came — even after that terrible noise — I still wasn't prepared for the damage. It was shocking,” says Geneva Maddox, a life-long resident in the area.
One of 52 ice-stricken and disaster-declared counties in Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, Little River County is just now beginning the lengthy clean-up process. The rural community has a large number of farmers and all — regardless of station or prosperity — took a hit in some way.
It's well-known that the Red River region produces quality pecans. The land type is varied, and it's hard to get trees established, but for some reason the land works for pecans.
Part of the credit for finding out about the area's pecan-producing ability must go to Patsy Hawkins' grandfather. In 1912, he dug planting pits for 160 trees bought in Ocean Springs, Miss.
Paul and Patsy Hawkins now farm that orchard (Bogard Pecan Orchards) outside Ashdown, Ark.
“The original orchard was planted in raised rows to keep the trees out of the water. We have a newer orchard that was planted in 1976. That orchard is really damaged badly,” says Patsy.
The Hawkinses have seen disasters hit their orchard before. But the scale of this latest far exceeds those. In 1981, a tornado came through and took out 200-plus trees. It put two of them through the Hawkin's shed and did other major damage.
In May 1990, the river flooded.
“We lost all our row crops, but the pecan crop was good. It salvaged a terrible year otherwise. The same happened with the tornado — we still made a good pecan crop that year because most of our trees were okay. This time, though, that won't happen. Every tree we have is damaged,” says Patsy.
The pecan harvesting season usually runs from early November through mid-December, sometimes longer. With equipment and their shed, the Hawkin's operation can handle about 10,000 pounds of pecans a day. They sell mostly to the in-shell market and ship all over the nation.
“The year before last we shipped out over 200,000 pounds — all of it came from our orchards (around 1,700 trees total on around 200 acres). This year, we didn't ship out any pecans on trucks. I think that's attributable to the drought. We didn't get but around 5,000 pounds this year.”
Currently, pecans are bringing $2 per pound. Two years ago pecans were going for $1 per pound.
“With that kind of price, you'd figure we'd be making a nice sum. But you have to care for these trees. We have more than $200 per acre in inputs throughout the season. That adds up,” says Paul.
Besides pecans, Paul row crops “everything but cotton” on 2,000 acres. The area used to be big on cotton, he says. There was once enough cotton grown to support 12 gins in the county. That ended about 25 years ago.
“This is a rough patch for farmers with commodity prices as low as they are. Pecans have really helped farmers stay afloat. It's a good, steady crop. That appears to have ended for a while,” says Patsy.
“The problem is you have to wait 15 to 20 years to get a profit off a tree that's been planted. I'm getting too old to start up another orchard. I'm guessing we're going to have to plant between 100 and 200 trees to replace those damaged the worst,” says Paul.
It's so wet right now farmers can't get into fields and clean up. The devastation and aftermath is akin to the 1994 ice storm that hit east Arkansas and west Mississippi, says Paul.
“The folks there got much-needed help. We're asking for the same government help they got. We don't know if we'll get it, but we're asking.”
The Hawkinses say they've been contacted by the nearby Shreveport (Louisiana) Extension Service about which of their varieties were ice-damaged more.
“The Owens on our property were hit hardest. Everyone figured the worst damage would have been to our big Stuarts. But that's not the case,” says Patsy.
Despite the recent bad fortune, don't look for the Hawkinses to be leaving Little River County.
“My wife is a third-generation farmer here and I'm a fourth generation. My great grandfather came here in 1835. It's just inside us. We aren't going anywhere,” says Paul.
Worth Matteson III
Matteson was in Mississippi several years ago and noticed the damage from the 1994 ice storm.
“I couldn't believe it had happened. When I first drove through I kept thinking, ‘Who has pruned these people's trees so horribly?’ It didn't register at first. Now, after what we've been through, I can understand how it happened.”
Matteson and his sons farm a diversified operation together. “We grow peanuts, corn, soybeans, milo, wheat, corn, and pecans. We farm several thousand acres.”
The property didn't suffer much terrible damage to anything except trees and the electrical system, says Matteson.
“Our buildings and structures seem to have held up well. Our pecan trees were hurt badly, though. Pines in the area were absolutely devastated.”
Assessing damage is a tough thing to get a handle on, says Matteson.
“I first thought there were certain varieties that were hit harder than others. I don't know about that now. I thought the Stuarts were hardest hit. But after thinking about it, I think it may have had something to do with the way they were traditionally pruned and trained.”
Older pecan trees were trained to have a broad crown — there was no central leader, says Matteson. Growers did that because to get the nuts, they'd hand-shake the branches.
“Someone would climb up and shake away. Now, the ideal method of training a tree is to have a central leader with branches coming off. The shaking machines are able to do their jobs with that configuration.”
What's clear is the orchards have lost a massive amount of fruiting forms.
“Off our pecan acreage we hope to get between 800 and 1,000 pounds per acre. We need all the growing points we can get. The problem is even if we go in and bob the broken parts off, the wood that then grows is new. It won't produce nuts for years. It's like putting a graft in. We'll have some production, but it'll be seriously curtailed for a long while.”
Matteson doesn't know how he's going to get the clean-up done. Someone has to devise a method to get in and prune the branches that are still hanging.
“You can't just yank off hanging branches for fear of ruining the trees further. I suppose it'll take a truck with a bucket or something.”
It's even more compounded because in each county government agencies seem to be taking different approaches. Matteson farms not only in different counties, but different states.
“We've been told in one county to go ahead with clean-up — just take pictures and document our expenses. In other counties, we've been told to wait.
For people with fences, the situation is awful, says Matteson. Fences are down all over the place. Cattle operations are in for hard, back-breaking work.
“It isn't just in a few spots, either. The fences are messed up at numerous points.”
Dan York — a fourth-generation farmer in the county — farms and also runs York Pecan Company, a thriving enterprise.
“In talking to other folks who've seen similar damage in other places, we're looking at four or five years before we have a normal crop again.”
York has 200 acres of pecan trees — about 13 trees per acre. The trees are volunteer. York's father cleared the land in the late 1950s and early 1960s and left the pecans standing.
When the ice storm finally blew over, the first thing York had to do was get the fences back up to keep his livestock in.
“We're still working on that. We have about 800 head and will have some more in March. The problem is our fences are often right next to woods. Some places have woods on both sides of a fence. Anywhere a tree limb fell, it messed up the fence.
“We just go in with horses, ride the big debris out and then take the mechanical equipment in. It's a mess.
In regards to pecans, York's buying area is impacted by this disaster.
“Our range is around 50 miles. Last year, there were plenty of pecans to be had. Next year, we're looking at having to go outside our normal range because the pecans just aren't going to be available.”
There are around 600 volunteer pecan trees scattered around Geneva Maddox's property. Maddox and her husband bought the property in 1941. The pecan trees have provided income for many years.
“We grafted a bunch and those are the ones that seem to have the worst damage,” says Maddox.
Maddox has people come in and harvest her pecans. This year harvest had just gotten “started good” when the disaster struck. It wasn't a good year before that, though. The drought made many pecans fall off the trees before they were ready. The whole area was “just burned up.”
The money Maddox gets from the pecans isn't a whole lot, but she looks forward to it.
“I consider that my ‘play money.’ This year, I won't have any play money.”
Maddox was without electricity for 21 days or so. Debris is still all over the property and clean-up hasn't yet begun.
“There are pecans under all that debris, but they're lost now. There's no way we can get them. Because of the drought, we were only getting half a crop to start with. The ice storm means we lost at least another 15 percent of the crop.”
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