Mississippi River flood dooms promising year for farmers
AP Graphic: MISS FLOODING
By CHRIS TALBOTT
Associated Press Writer
REDWOOD, Miss. (AP) -- Farmers here are experiencing water torture as they wait for the flooded Mississippi River to recede and give them a chance to salvage what's left of what might have been the best season in memory.
The muddy Mississippi is at levels not seen in more than three decades, putting hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland under water. It's impossible to gauge overall agricultural losses at this point, federal and state officials say, but most agree the cost will be expensive and the damage extensive.
At Pig Willie's barbecue joint, a cinderblock and cement floor affair attached to a gas station along Highway 61 as the blacktop begins its long, flat run through the Delta, independent farmers recently gathered for lunch and to share their blues.
"Right here in this room it will cost over $1 million," Karsten Simrall said of the difficulties facing farmers. They are wagering potential profits offered by some of the richest soil in the country against the whims of the mercurial Mississippi.
"It'll take us five years to get out of this. It's going to put people out of business," Simrall said. "There's no telling what's going to happen."
The river has not reached this level -- about 7 feet above flood stage -- since 1973.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says a total of 855,750 acres are under either Mississippi floodwater or backwater from the Yazoo River, which drains much of the board-flat Mississippi Delta into the Mississippi River. About 273,000 of those flooded acres are cleared for wheat, cotton, soybeans, corn and other crops.
Simrall recently knocked a hole in a levee his family built more than a century ago to protect their land north of Vicksburg. After failing to keep water out, he feared it will keep in receding floodwaters.
The flood hit just as farmers were preparing to harvest wheat and plant corn, soybeans and cotton. Some, like farmer Brad Bradway, were forced to watch as water crept inch by inch over his 110 acres of wheat until his fields sat under 8 feet of water.
Others are now stuck waiting for the water to recede and the ground to dry before they can plant, guaranteeing a shortened growing season, yield reductions and lower returns. This comes after a drought has left much of the region parched for several years.
"At one point I had 300 acres under water and 240 acres too dry to plant," Bradway said. "What's wrong with this picture?"
Weather is just part of the problem.
Input costs such as fuel and fertilizer have risen dramatically in just a few months. Diesel around Vicksburg costs more than $4 a gallon -- or more than $100 per tank for the ubiquitous diesel pickup -- and fertilizer that went for $68 an acre last season now runs $100.
Simrall planted 1,700 acres of corn that was about a foot tall when floodwaters covered 1,200 of those acres. He's out $120,000 already and doesn't know if the Mississippi River will recede fast enough for him to salvage that acreage.
He's not alone. The flood has taken not only money farmers invested in the field, but much of the profit they expected. Worse, most sold their crops in advance to take advantage of prices so high few could resist.
Bradway sold 1,000 bushels of winter wheat to a distributor for $7 a bushel. When the flood took his crop, he was still on the hook. So he paid $10.50 a bushel to another distributor for wheat to satisfy his contract. He hopes to turn a profit on soybeans this summer.
"I'm trying to design an exit strategy because I'm tired of it," Bradway said.
The farmers believe there's a simple solution to the flooding.
The Environmental Protection Agency is threatening to veto the Yazoo Backwater project that would pump excess water out of the Yazoo River wetlands during floods. Critics say the project will hurt the environment and threaten endangered species.
The veto would break a promise farmers and many area residents believe was made to them when the corps begin to harness the Mississippi with a massive levee system. While the levees keep the river in check, they say much of the benefit is upstream and at their expense.
A corps spokesman says if the Yazoo project were in place, it would have pumped about 4 feet of water off currently flooded land. That would have made quite the difference for Mississippi farmers who work inside the levee system.
Bradway has farmed the same 1,000 acres for three decades. He's had floods big and small in 14 of those 30 years.
This latest, greatest flood cost him $25,000 out of pocket and $45,000 in potential earnings. He wonders if this flood could be the last for Sherman's Defeat Plantation, the site of the Union scourge's only loss during the Civil War.
"I'm trying to keep it from becoming Bradway's Defeat," he said.