Workers at Hamburg, Ark.-based Triple M Farms pack tomatoes last June. This year Triple M Farms anticipates an excellent crop with an abundance of extra-large fruit, with production set to start June 10, says Gary Margolis, president of Gem Tomato & Vegetable Sales Inc., Boca Raton, Fla., which handles sales for Triple M. ( Triple M Farms )

Heavy rains and subsequent flooding in late April and early May led Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson to issue disaster declarations for three dozen counties, and a preliminary estimate released by the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture pegged agricultural losses at $64.5 million.

“I’m being conservative,” Jarrod Hardke, University of Arkansas agronomist, said of the estimate in a news release. “There’s no sugar-coating it.”

From a fresh produce standpoint, however, the industry may have dodged disaster. Those hardest hit, according to Hardke, were row crops, with 156,000 acres of rice lost, followed by soybeans (83,200) corn (47,900) and cotton (9,300).

“We’re lucky compared to many,” said Kim Matthews, partner in sweet potato grower-shipper Matthews Ridgeview Farms, Wynne, Ark. “Our fields are set up to drain really well, and we’re not close to a river that’s overflowing.”

Matthews said May 11 that her company had started transplanting sweet potatoes on schedule May 10. Harvest is expected to start in late August.

Not everyone escaped unscathed, however.

Mike Roberts, head produce merchandiser for Harps Food Stores Inc., Springdale, Ark., said the chain does business with watermelon and pumpkin growers in the state who were affected by flooding.

He also said a strawberry grower’s fields were not flooded, but crews could not reach the fields to harvest.

“Watermelon is in the ground now, and pumpkins were in the process of being planted,” Roberts said.

However, Roberts said most of the locally grown produce the chain sources in Arkansas is pulled from the northwest, central and southeastern parts of the state, and the worst of flooding was in the northeast.

Randy Clanton Sr., co-owner of Randy Clanton Farms, Hermitage, Ark., said May 9 that the weather situation had been “very gracious to south Arkansas tomatoes.”

“Some places in Arkansas have an extreme amount of water,” he said. “In the last couple of weeks, we’ve had two episodes that amounted to maybe 3 inches. Most tomatoes are in hill country, and 3 inches is of no consequence.”

Clanton said rivers were at flood stage as storm waters flowed south through the state, but few tomato crops were located in harm’s way.

“I’m pretty satisfied with what I see right now,” said Clanton, whose company grows round, roma, grape and heirloom tomatoes. “I think we’ll have good supplies around the first of June and into mid-July.”

Gary Margolis, president of Gem Tomato & Vegetable Sales Inc., Boca Raton, Fla., said May 5 that he expected good-sized tomatoes, and the combination of warm days and cool nights should produce exceptional flavor.

“The situation is good,” said Margolis, whose company handles sales for Hamburg, Ark.-based Triple M Farms, which grows round and roma tomatoes. “There’s no water under the plastic and no damage to plants. Quality looks excellent.”

The state’s watermelon crop likely will be delayed at least a week, said Chandler Mack, vice president of operations for Lake Wales, Fla.-based Mack Farms Inc. and McMelon Inc., which is the sales agent for Leachville, Ark., grower Sand Land Farms Inc.

“They had some in ground,” Mack said. “Once they saw the potential rainfall, they stopped planting. They only planted about one-fourth of a crop. They held back a lot of plants.”

Scott McDulin, vice president of Schmieding Produce Co. LLC, Springdale, Ark., said heavy rains claimed 5% of the watermelon crop in northeast Arkansas, and the combination of rain and hail in southeast Missouri claimed up to 40% of the crop.

McDulin said quality should be good, but volume will be affected. Harvest likely will start a week late in early July, he said.

Arkansas watermelons typically aren’t a factor for the July Fourth push, Mack said.

“We rely on Georgia for those supplies,” he said. “Usually Arkansas starts between July 1 and July 10. Some years, it’s late June, but that’s a rarity.”

McDulin said the delay in the Arkansas harvest poses two potential problems. First, if Georgia’s season finishes early, there could be a supply gap for Fourth of July. Second, if Arkansas’ three-week deal runs late it could overlap with Indiana and negatively affect pricing.

“We ship Arkansas produce all over the Midwest and Eastern U.S.,” he said. “It is important since it fills the gap from Georgia to Indiana.”

Mack said the late start could be moot given enough warm weather.

“Watermelons have a way of adjusting if the heat comes on,” he said. “Then you’re not as far behind as you think.”