In the spring of 2019, the rain never seemed to stop.
While officials in the Delta are still collecting rain and flood damage data on what are being termed historic floods, preliminary reports indicate hundreds of thousands of farm and pasture acres were adversely affected.
Heavy rains beginning in January and stretching into spring caused heavy flooding across the Midwest and Plains. Floodwaters mounted and began to swell the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, eventually joined by intense storms and flood waters along the Arkansas River.
By June millions of acres of farmland had been inundated and millions in crop losses were being reported. USDA said farmers were prevented from planting more than 19 million acres of land nationwide with the majority occurring in the Midwest and Mid-South.
Farmers near the Missouri, Mississippi and Arkansas river basins experienced damage, from saturated fields left unplanted to the destruction of crops already in the ground. Acres of fertile land was decimated, much of it beyond any timely repair.
Damages included deposits of various types of debris and excessive sand carried in by floodwaters. Serious land scouring and gulley formation occurred as well as destruction of landscapes once engineered to drain fields efficiently.
Floods washed away topsoil, nutrients and micronutrients, organic material and other beneficial elements on many Delta fields.
"In some fields it's not going to be economically feasible to bring them back into production," said Walter Delp, Arkansas state conservation engineer with USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Little Rock.
"Some farmers are still trying to figure out what to do while more than a few have started whatever work they are able to do in hopes of getting fields in condition for next spring," added Bob Powell, staff chair and county agent for the University of Arkansas Extension Service in Dardanelle (Yell County) on the Arkansas River.
Many questions remain unanswered as some producers hold out for federal help. Others are seeking advice from state and local officials.
"In a few cases, we might have seen some silt and sediment filter in. Soil-like sediment over the top of topsoil can make a floodplain productive. But mostly we saw heavy sand deposits that replaced eroded soils and organic matter, and these need to be replaced before soil health can be restored," said NRCS soil scientist Edgar Mersiovsky in Little Rock.
In some locations, backwater from closed flood gates on rivers and tributaries and overflows from wetlands flooded into farm fields. Renovation efforts in these areas can greatly differ from mitigation efforts where levee breaches occurred.
For farmers who experienced heavy flooding from levee breaks, sand and debris deposits can vary from just a few inches to nearly a foot deep or more. Many of the fields that are too erosive or too low in soil productivity may no longer be suited for farming
Looking for answers, searching for solutions
Knowing many Delta farmers are struggling with renovating farms across the region, Delta Farm Press reached out to federal and state engineers, scientists and Extension agents for recommendations on how to best rebuild fields and soils.
While recommendations differed slightly depending on geographic location and the types of flood damage experienced, a list of more common recommendations include:
- Before starting, check for exposed utility or water lines
- Remove larger debris as required
- Check any tile outlets or other infrastructure obstructions like pivots
- Repair physical damage to soils as needed
- Stimulate soil microbial activity as quickly as possible
- Limit indirect impacts like soil crusting and additional erosion
Observations from the field
The Arkansas Extension Service's Bob Powell said loss of infrastructure is another major issue that farmers around Dardanelle, Ark., have been dealing with this year.
"With so much rain and floodwater you would think the last thing we need right now is water, but a couple of farmers who were able to plant crops on land that flooded discovered their irrigation pumps had been under water and required repair or replacement. Others lost barns and equipment... they just couldn't evacuate everything fast enough when the waters started rising," he said.
Powell said another issue many are or will be facing is weed control.
"All kinds of seeds from the Plains states filtered down the Arkansas (river), and we had young cottonwood trees sprouting in fields post flood as fields dried. We've also seen types of weeds growing like we've never seen before."
Edgar Mersiovsky said farmers who suffered flood damages along the Arkansas River are dealing with varying degrees of field damage.
"For light deposits of sand, up to a few inches, some fields can be tilled to incorporate that with better soils that remain, but heavy deposits of sand, and especially silt, will require removal. Some material can be used to fill scoured areas, but mostly removal will be needed."
Mersiovsky also warned that the sand and silt is absent of organic matter and as it dries it can form a thick crust that can get nearly as hard as concrete.
"Farmers should consider getting cover crops on those fields as quickly as possible to replace nutrients and prevent crusting," he said. "These cover crops can be burned down and incorporated into the soils or left where they are. Once they begin to dry up naturally in the spring they can be rolled into soils."
Backwater flooding renovation efforts differ
In Mississippi, Paul Rodrigue reported, in the backwater areas of his state, water could stay on some fields for an extended period. Ground saturation will be the greatest problem.
"Farmers are going to see things growing they have never seen on their farms before. It is best to let these grow for a while and then do a burn down. If you have time, let the next spurt of growth come up and then do another burn down near the end of fall," he said.
Some seed however will remain in the soil and will sprout next spring.
"A cover crop for the winter would be the next thing to do," he said. "You could use wheat or cereal rye, but a cover crop will help get soil microbes back in line. Then, even if you haven't used it before, I would recommend using chicken manure on your field to get the benefit of organic material, nutrients and micronutrients back into the ground. But the most important thing is to not do any tillage this fall."
That means that many common things farmers might normally do early may need to wait until spring.
He said reading about renovation efforts on the Internet may not be good for backwater farmers because most of the information is based on the 2011 floods and apply to farmland in the Midwest.
"In the backwater country, we didn't get flooded with sediments like they did, so we are unique in the way we have to deal with this flood problem," Rodrigue said.
Resources for renovation and restoration
Many counties across the Delta states were declared disaster areas, which opened the door to possible federal assistance.
"Some farmland that was damaged is covered, and farmers may want to consider USDA-NRCS emergency funds for conservation easements. Eleven states have been allocated nearly $100 million in these funds including Arkansas, where $2.8 million may be available to purchase and restore easements," said Delp.
The 11 states currently identified included Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri.
NRCS also provides technical and financial assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and other conservation programs to help producers recover and build resilience to better weather future disasters.
EQIP provides producers with financial resources and one-on-one help to plan and implement land improvements. While not established specifically for disaster response, subject to availability of funds, the program can assist with immediate recovery needs.
The closing date for selection in 2019 has already passed, but NRCS officials say they are currently discussing and researching additional funding support in consideration of 2019's historic flooding. Farmers should check with their NRCS state office or FSA county office for information.
"NRCS can be a very valuable partner to help landowners with their recovery effort," said Mike Sullivan, state conservationist for the NRCS in Arkansas. "Our staff will work one-on-one with landowners to make assessments of the damages and develop approaches that focus on effective recovery of the land."
The USDA Farm Service Agencies Emergency Conservation Program also provides funding and technical assistance for farmers and ranchers to rehabilitate land damaged by natural disasters.