Treading Water in the Bootheel

Missouri farmers watch helplessly as hopes for bountiful 2011 crops are dashed by extreme flooding of natural and man-made causes.

Published on: May 3, 2011

The blast lasted only a few seconds, but its impact could last for months – or even years — for the farmers of Mississippi County in the Missouri Bootheel.

The Jackson family farm is located near Charleston, some 10 miles from the Birds Point levee on the Mississippi River. But at 10 p.m. on Monday night, Bob Jackson felt the strong vibrations of the explosives set off by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He and his son, Robert, have 800 acres of corn and wheat in the fertile river bottom ground designated as a floodway below Birds Point levee. Early Tuesday morning, Bob drove out to his farm's setback levee to survey the vast fields of drowned crops.

"All I could see was dark gray, murky river water steadily rising," Bob says. "It will soon reach 10 to 11 feet in depth. We had planted some corn here earlier in April, and had one of our best wheat crops ever growing. Not now. I don't have much faith that we will be able to replant corn – or even get soybeans planted in two or three weeks, but we will try – if the weather clears up."

At the direction of Major General Michael Walsh, corps technicians detonated explosive charges Monday night, removing a 1.5-mile portion of the Mississippi River mainline levee at Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway. Because of heavy rainfall and navigation issues yesterday, the corps will have to finish its levee breach work today on both the inflow and outflow parts of the floodway.

Nonetheless, the difficult and desperate decision to carry out the levee breach has been made and farmers like the Jacksons will face the consequences.

About 230 residents have been evacuated from the floodway in Mississippi and New Madrid counties, and as many as 800 have been asked to leave surrounding communities as a precaution.

Agricultural land in Mississippi County is valued at more than $300 million and has some of the most productive soil in the state. In 2010, Mississippi county farmers harvested 6.2 million bushels of soybeans and 9.4 million bushels of corn, according to the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

Losing half of that production – 132,000 acres or more -- will be a big blow to the county's economy. Bob's son, Robert Jackson, serves on the Mississippi County Commissioner board, which stated that it anticipates $1 billion in losses to the county's economy due to this disaster.

Gary Marshall, Missouri Corn Growers Association CEO, says he understands the blast was intended for "the greater good of surrounding residents." Still, he adds, "the agricultural and economic losses in Mississippi and New Madrid counties are devastating and a long recovery process looms ahead." 

MCGA and other Missouri agricultural organizations worked behind the scenes with elected officials over the past two weeks, trying to protect hundreds of thousands of acres of cropland and the livelihoods of farmers. "This levee blast will not only decimate this year's crop, but the sand and silt left behind will impede farmers for years to come," Marshall adds.

All efforts are now focused on finding ways to identify federal and state support for growers in the spillway area. As water levels recede, Missouri Bootheel farmers will try to rebuild and recover from the devastating floods of 2011. The Jackson farm carries flood and crop insurance. "We expect to get back 85% of our investment in seed and fertilizer," Jackson says. "But we are still facing no crop income."

After farming in the Mississippi River Valley for 50 years, Bob Jackson knows firsthand that the river gives and the river takes. "As a kid, I witnessed the February 1937 flood," he recalls. "My aunt and uncle lived in the floodway and it took all spring and summer to dry out their farmhouse and outbuildings. Nevertheless, they did make a crop that year. I don't believe it yielded much, but somehow they got it planted and harvested."

Jackson says what's extra worrisome this time is the widespread flooding in southeast Missouri. "Keep in mind that it's more than the 130,000 acres in the floodway threatened. "Farms between Charleston and Sikeston have cropland and pastureland turning into mush. Some 25 inches of rainfall fell here in April – and it's still raining. There is water standing in fields everywhere and ditches are so full, they cannot drain.

"This is bigger and will be more devastating than the 1937 flood," Jackson notes. "All of this rain and flooding wears you down – both physically and mentally."

What Jackson and all Bootheel farmers need most of all is recovery aid in the form of sunshine and a stretch of fair weather soon.