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Arkansas Crops & Commodities

The American Rice Bowl

Arkansas rice production accounts for nearly 50% of all rice grown in the United States. That’s nearly nine billion pounds produced annually, mostly in Arkansas, Cross, Jackson, Lonoke, Poinsett and other Delta counties. It is also grown in smaller amounts in the Arkansas River Valley and Timberlands. Farmers in more than 40 counties throughout the state contribute to Arkansas rice production, harvesting about 1,785,000 total acres in 2010.

Rice is usually planted late March through May. The ground must be leveled before planting, and farmers use disks, field cultivators or land planes to prepare the fields. Depending on the weather, farmers plant rice in three different ways:
1) broadcasting or scattering seeds in all directions,
2) drilling the seeds into the soil with machines or
3) dropping seeds from an airplane.

After the rice is planted, a roller is pulled across the field with a tractor to ensure the seeds are firmly in the ground. Rainfall is needed for growth, but farmers may also use the levee irrigation system in the absence of rain.

As it matures, rice turns from bright green to a rich golden color, and harvest usually begins in early September. The grain is harvested with a combine and stored temporarily or taken directly to commercial grain elevators.

From Seeds to Jeans

Delta farmers plow their cotton land into rows that form firm seedbeds in April and May. A mechanical planter opens a small trench in each row, drops the correct amount of seeds and covers the opening. In about two months, flower buds called squares appear, and a few weeks later, cotton blossoms open. Petals change from white to yellow, then pink to dark red. The blossoms then wither and fall, leaving green cotton bolls visible in July and August.

Inside the cotton bolls, moist fibers grow and expand until they finally split the boll apart, and the fluffy cotton bursts out. Bolls begin to open in early September. Picking begins in late September and lasts through early November.

Most farmers use a mechanical cotton picker to harvest the Arkansas crops using moistened spindles with jagged edges to pull the cotton out of the ripened bolls. Cotton is temporarily stored in a basket atop the mechanical picker.

Once the basket is full, the cotton is unloaded into a module builder that compresses it for storage until it is hauled away to the gin for processing. Cotton gins separate raw cotton fibers from seeds, and the bale press compresses the cotton into 500-pound bales for storage and shipping.

Cotton can be found in everything from apparel and home furnishings to medical and industrial supplies. The cotton fiber, or “lint,” is separated from the seed and is used to make textiles, yarn, medical gauze, compresses and cotton swabs. Seeds are shelled, crushed and pressed or treated with solvents to make cottonseed oil found in margarine, shortening, salad dressing, soaps, candles, cosmetics, detergents, oilcloth and other products. Cotton hulls are used in animal feed, fertilizers, fuel, synthetic rubber and petroleum-derived plastics. Fiber from the stalk is used for pressed paper and cardboard.

Soybeans

Soybeans are also among the most important Arkansas crops. More than three million acres of Arkansas land are planted with soybeans, with each acre producing around 35 bushels – yielding nearly 110 million bushels of soybeans during 2010-11. Most soybeans are processed for their oil and protein for animal feed. Some are used as seed for the next year’s crop. Others are processed for human food like soy milk, soy flour, soy protein and tofu. Margarine, salad dressing and mayonnaise contain soybean oil, and many foods are packed in it.

Soy-based wood adhesives are used in certain types of lumber, carpet and auto upholstery. Mixed with recycled newspaper, soybeans make up a wood-like material used in furniture, flooring and countertops. Simple processing of soybean oil produces a clean-burning, environmentally friendly diesel fuel, which is also an ingredient in many industrial lubricants, solvents, cleaners and paints. Soybeans are even used to produce inks, crayons, candles and the foam in coolers and refrigerators.

Wheat

More than 80,000 acres of wheat are grown each year in the Arkansas Delta. It’s planted in September or October, then grows slowly through the winter until it takes on a velvety green appearance in the spring and is harvested when it turns an amber color around June. Wheat is ground into flour and is found in many foods, including breads, cookies, cakes, crackers and pasta.

Timber

In 2010, forestry added $1.36 billion to the Arkansas economy. From Little Rock to the north, west and south are forests. To the east is the Delta, where hardwood grows in the swamps and river bottoms. The Ozarks are home to a mix of slower-growing pine and hardwood. The Ouachitas to the west abound in pine on the slopes and hardwood in the valleys. The rolling hills of the Timberlands to the south contain more pine, which grows more quickly in the sandy soils and warm climate of south Arkansas than in the mountains.

Softwood, such as pine, is much lighter and easier to process than hardwood. There are more species of hardwood trees, but softwood is still the main supply of commercial wood.