With the Army Corps of Engineers preparing to blow a levee and allow a surging Mississippi River to flood their acreage (and spare Cairo, Illinois, from flooding in the process), disheartened Bootheel farmers spent the last week of April scrambling to move as much as they could out of the potential flood zone.
On Wednesday, April 27, “Probably 80 percent of the farming equipment is out, and all that is left are a few homeowners who need to move their possessions,” said Kevin Mainord, mayor of East Prairie, Mo., who farms over 5,000 acres in, and near, the floodway. “Some homeowners are moving their possessions out but will stay at their residences until it’s evident that the levee will be either overtopped or degraded by the Corps.”
Mainord said if the Corps carried out the plan, as much as a third of the farmland in the area would not be farmed again. “A lot of the drainage would be filled with sand and sediment. It would take years to recover. It’s ridiculous during this time and age that we would be sacrificed to save someone else.”
Not surprisingly, that sentiment is common amongst Bootheel residents. Matt McCrate, who lives in Cape Girardeau, Mo., and works for Stuttgart, Ark.-based Stratton Seed, said anger and dismay are rampant.
“For my job, I work with agriculture retailers and farmers that do contract seed production who have land in the proposed flood zone,” said McCrate on Friday, April 29.
Earlier Friday, an attempt by the Missouri attorney general to thwart the Corps through federal court was unsuccessful.
“The Corps is still saying they’re watching the situation closely. As of this morning, they said if it hits 60.5 feet (in Cairo), that’s the point when they’d blow the levee. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) forecasts the crest at 60.5 feet this weekend.”
“I know the farmers are hoping if that level is hit, the Corps won’t blow it and sit tight to see if the river recedes. But the Corps can sometimes be inflexible.”
Like Mainord, McCrate said residents and farmers “are trying to get everything out. There are over 100 homes in that flood path. There are many, many shops — the farm operations are large, often run by second- and third-generation farmers. They’re unfamiliar with this since that levee hasn’t been breached since the 1930s.”
The farm ground that would be put deliberately underwater “is some of the best in Missouri. It’s isn’t poorly drained, swamp ground. This is silt loam soils, the type of ground that normally provides 200- to 250-bushel corn. Farmers typically run 70- to 90-bushel wheat there. They could be growing great cotton but the primary crops are now beans, corn and wheat.
“Basically, if they flood the 130,000-plus acres, it will wipe out half of Mississippi County and a third of New Madrid County. New Madrid County is right behind Mississippi County in agricultural receipts — among the top ag counties in the state.
“Think about it: in just soybeans alone, figure 50-bushel yields on 132,000 acres, and it would be a crop loss of $90 million.”
Most of the sandy loam ground in the floodway has already been planted in corn.
“The corn is in and up,” said McCrate. “Farmers could lose all that.
“There is tremendous acreage in wheat there, too. Many growers go with double-crop beans. In 2009, when there was paltry wheat acreage in the South, Mississippi County had a large wheat crop.
“Farmers practice high management for their wheat. They fertilize in the fall, a minimum of twice in the spring. They use fungicides and insecticides. It’s some of the highest managed wheat production in the Mid-South.”
Bootheel farmers “are extremely unhappy. The law (the Corps) is operating off was written in the late 1920s to protect Cairo, Illinois.”
At that time, Cairo "had a population over 40,000" and all the Bootheel floodway ground was in virgin timber. “Today, Cairo is a dying town of barely 3,000 people and the floodway has been cleared and it’s some of the best farm ground in the state of Missouri — flat, 200-, 300-, 400-acre fields. All of it is irrigated, almost all cut to grade, all extremely productive.”
What are farmers being told about possible recompense if their land is flooded?
“Most of the farmers carry insurance,” said McCrate. “Flood insurance is a separate rider, whether crop insurance or insurance to protect things like tanks.
“But farmers have been told by insurance adjustors that for their wheat and any corn that’s already up that, even though they’ve paid a premium, flood insurance will only protect them if it’s a ‘natural disaster.’ If it’s a ‘man-made disaster’ the insurance has no effect. So, all the farmers with flood insurance for their corn, beans, wheat — or grain in tanks — will be unprotected.
“Does the Corps understand that? This is not a good situation.”
And that doesn’t take into account the lost revenue in future years that the deluge would bring. The disastrous effect of the aftermath “is the biggest financial risk for that 130,000-plus acres. That ground normally would bring $4,000 to $6,000 per acre. That land could be decimated. If they allow that flood, a third to a half of that ground may never be farmed again.
“Who’s going to pay for that?”
Very few are paying attention to what’s happening with the affected Bootheel farmers, said McCrate. “Their ground, their homes, their grain bins, equipment they can’t move, will all go under. There are a tremendous number of pivots in the area and those cost $40,000 to $50,000 a piece. Farmers are trying to pull the motors off them and save those, at least. They’re trying to salvage what they can.”