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When you think about American farmland, your mind might head straight for sunny California, or to the “fruited plain” (also known as the Midwest). But if you’re an investor looking at farmland as a stabilizing and diversifying addition to your portfolio, you might not want to overlook the Mississippi River Delta.
Supported by the 2,318-mile Mississippi River, the Delta is an agricultural powerhouse and the location of some of the richest, most versatile farmland in the country. This area encompasses primarily eastern Arkansas, western Mississippi, the Missouri Bootheel, and Louisiana, as well as parts of Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
Based in Arkansas, AcreTrader regularly sources farms from throughout the Delta; in fact, members of our team grew up working Delta land and have deep roots there. This article outlines the defining characteristics of this agricultural region and explains the primary focus points of our evaluation processes there.
Soil in the Delta
The Mississippi River drains 41% of the contiguous U.S. Transporting sediments downstream and changing course over millennia, the river has built up broad, rich deposits of nutrient-filled soils.
These types of soils—heterogeneous sediments broken down by erosion and then deposited elsewhere by water—are known as alluvium. They’re almost always quite fertile, but less compositionally consistent than in other areas that have been less subject to reformation by water.
That means the Delta has lots of variety in its soils. And that’s good for farming, because it means farmers have a lot of options.
Heavier soils rich in clay are quite common. Clays don’t drain as efficiently as loamy or sandy soils, which makes them more suited for rice and soybean cultivation. Silt, on the other hand, is good for just about any crop and is widespread throughout the Delta.
The Delta also contains smaller pockets of sandy soils, such as in the Missouri Bootheel. Cotton thrives in these soils because, as farmers say, “cotton doesn’t like wet feet.” Cotton roots are sensitive to overirrigation and can rot easily, so sand’s excellent drainage keeps them dry.
Crops in the Delta
Cotton, corn, soybeans, grain sorghum, rice, and wheat are the primary crops grown in the Mississippi River Delta.
Arkansas, the leading rice producer in the U.S., single-handedly accounts for nearly half of total national rice production. Add in Mississippi and Missouri, fourth and fifth respectively, and you get the Delta producing roughly 60% of all rice grown in the U.S.
We tend to think of farmland as mainly a food source, but we also use it to grow our clothing. Collectively, Delta states are responsible for about 20% of U.S.-grown cotton.
Cotton crop on an AcreTrader holding in Dunklin County, Missouri.
Southern Louisiana has a unique sugarcane industry generating nearly half a billion dollars per year. The area is responsible for just under half of the nation’s total production, according to the 2017 USDA Agricultural Census.
The Delta also sees significant planting of soybeans, which are especially adaptable in terms of both climate and soil.
Compared to other regions like the Midwest, Delta land values are very parcel- and crop-specific. Farmers plant for their particular soil type, but they can also often capitalize on their soils’ inherent versatility. For example, if cotton prices have been falling in commodities markets, they might be able to shift into soybeans or another, more profitable crop.
Crop rotation is the practice of planting different crops on the same piece of ground from year to year. Silty soils are especially ideal for multiple rotations because just about anything will grow in them.
This technique also benefits the soil, as different crops exhibit different chemical composition uptakes. Changing up what’s grown on a parcel helps keep soil chemistry balanced and prevent soil issues such as nematodes or wilt.
Crop rotation has been a key element in Delta farming for hundreds of years. It’s thought that Native Americans taught early European settlers how to rotate crops to keep the soil healthy, among many other agriculture techniques we now consider foundational.
Water in the Delta
Irrigation Is Critical
Because the summer months in the Delta region are typically long and dry, parcels will nearly always need irrigation in some form. This is why we differentiate between irrigated and non-irrigated acres within parcels we examine. Non-irrigated acres can help stabilize overall yields on a farm, but most of the time, irrigated acres are what’s producing the best yields.
Irrigation is implemented in two primary forms:
- Pivot irrigation uses mechanized equipment that turns around a central pivot point and distributes water through large sprinklers. This type of irrigation uses water more efficiently but is more expensive and labor-intensive. It’s useful on rougher topography that isn't suitable for leveling.
Pivot irrigation equipment on an AcreTrader holding in Woodruff County, Arkansas.
- Furrow irrigation uses pipe and furrows to run water across a field. A main pipe drawing from a well runs down a slope, while outflows in the pipe run into furrows between crop rows. Much less expensive, furrow irrigation is prone to evaporation and runoff but is growing more efficient through the use of digital water management tools.
Groundwater resources are strong across much of the Delta. Many wells draw from the Mississippi Alluvial Aquifer, which is replenished by the Mississippi River. We do find areas where aquifers don’t recharge as ready, so it’s important during valuation to make sure water access is reliable.
Flood Irrigation for Rice Farming
You can often recognize a rice field because it will be covered in water. This isn’t because rice is particularly thirsty. Rice doesn’t need any more water than other crops, but it can withstand a lot more. Flooding is highly effective at keeping other weeds and plants from growing in and choking out the rice.
Flood irrigation is a specific subset of furrow irrigation in which a field or portions of it are covered in water. As mentioned above, heavier soils are often good for this technique as they retain water well.
A flooded rice field on an AcreTrader holding in Quitman County, Mississippi.
Field leveling—dirt work to establish a consistent slope—isn’t an absolute necessity for flood irrigation, but it definitely helps. Fields may be leveled to a grade of zero and will have a levee around the perimeter. Fields leveled to a slight grade will have levees across the field, allowing water to spill down the slope into each consecutive enclosure.
Generally speaking, leveling work can serve to increase Delta land values.
Finally, it’s important to know that some land directly on the Mississippi River can be prone to flooding; we always check historical flooding information.
Duck Hunting in the Delta
The Mississippi Flyway is a migration corridor for more than 300 bird species, with the lower parts serving as a major winter habitat for mallards. That means duck hunting is a major attraction and source of revenue in the area—and another reason people want to own Delta land. Visit this interactive map to see where ducks are observed throughout the year.
Source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Depending on the features of agricultural land, it may be suitable for recreational leases, which can provide another source of income from land ownership.
Every farm is unique, especially in the Delta. It takes regional expertise and experience to operate the rich farmland of the lower Mississippi region; the same is true for transacting.
Thoroughly reviewed offerings sourced from the Delta are frequent appearances on the AcreTrader platform. Learn more about building a diversified portfolio of farmland investments.