Flood recovery a daunting task for Missouri farmers

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June 5, 2011 - 7:00pm

Ed Marshall is sitting hunched over in a makeshift office in Charleston, Missouri studying photos of his farmland . Most of it under water. He doesn't blink as he clicks through each one-- his eyes wide scanning each frame over the frame of his reading glasses. The images show different scenes from the disaster that covered homes, fields and equipment in southeast Missouri. The water was let in by three blasts to a once sturdy levee system here. Last year at this time, Marshall's mind was on beginning the soybean season and he was probably out in his truck or field totally in his agriculture element. Now, he has enough time on his hands off the farm to think about money and how much of it he's lost. "I'm gonna say it's gonna cost me ehhhhh uhhhhh million and a half dollars. pause. and that's IF I can get in between now and the middle of June and get beans, get my beans planted."

Marshall acknowledges betting money against the weather is a risky venture, but farmers seldom expect an entire season to go to waste. Even if the water recedes, Marshall's prime soybean ground may be too wet, and stay flooded for too long to risk running heavy planting equipment over unstable soil. Marshall 5 "You know, unless you get perfect weather and no rain, that's just not gonna happen. So, it may very well be a pipe dream." Take it from someone who knows-- eighteen years ago, northwestern Missouri farmer Richard Oswald survived the Great Flood of 1993, the costliest flood in the history of the United States. Water poured from 150 rivers and tributaries. Now Oswald has a few predictions for southeast Missouri farmers. Oswald "A lot of unknowns, it's no fun. They're going to smell some horrible smells, you can't imagine the smell on the river bottom after a flood. Organic matter on the river bottom from the crop smells and smells and smells..."

Then, Oswald says, comes months of cleanup. Entire trees could have washed onto cropland, boards with nails lodged into wet soil and dead things-- from corn to wild turkeys. "And they'll have a lot of sleepless nights. I've been through it, and I can tell you there's never been anything that's weighed heavier on my mind than the days leading up to the flood and the days after the flood when you are confronted with all that work. All that dirty cleanup, and it is the dirtiest clean up you can imagine. And really not knowing...that you won't have to do it again next year." Oswald farmed the year after the 1993 flood and made an excellent crop. Though, the story might be a bit different for southeast Missouri farmers. This wasn't a typical flood situation. Here, The US Army Corp of Engineers blasted three gaps in a long levee to ease rising water on the Illinois side of the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Weeks later, farmers are counting on the going back to its original boundary. "Let's take the situation you just described. Where you have the water moving very rapidly..." Roger Johnson is president of the National Farmer's Union which represents state farmers unions, including Missouri. He says there is more in store for farmers if the water goes down. Roger 2 "It is certainly gouging out and eroding a lot of land. And if you've got massive volumes of water, you'll take massive areas of the landscape-- you'll just take it away. That pretty much destroys that land. What happens with all this land that gets removed with the water, it gets deposited someplace else. Now you have a big pile that is...uh turned upside down." So, Johnson says once the fertile topsoil farmers depend on is gone, that's when there's trouble. Rocky, gravel like land, or sand in its place takes time to remove. If this is the case, an estimated 200 farmers along the Mississippi should expect their next few seasons to be about cleanup. "Certainly not every farmer will be in this spot. But there will be a number of farmers who will be in this spot. It's like your paycheck just having vanished for three years...and the house...and you have no place to live and you know, no income coming in. So what that means is that every now and then, farmers depend on hitting a big year, so that you can get some extra money. So that when these tough years like this come along, you're able to survive and farm again." But farmers here are facing additional challenges to their livelihood. For one thing, the US Army Corp of Engineers doesn't plan to fix the levees until next year, and farmers who live and work on this land say that timeline doesn't work. They need guaranteed dry land--now. But, they're not going to get a guarantee right away. The Corps has no plan to build temporary levees until a damage assessment is completed along the portion of the Mississippi that flooded this spring. That means first assessing miles of floodplain from southeast Missouri, down to the Gulf of Mexico, before the Corps will even consider building back the levee. Aside from levees, farmers aren't in the clear-- turns out, this land is being eyed for potential wetland reclamation. Some environmentalists reason farmland that was once wetland land is better off as it was hundreds of years ago. Emerson 1 "Let's just say, hypothetically, if you allow the river to flow where it used to flow, you're going to displace millions of people, I mean... pause... that's just a fact!!." Representative Jo Ann Emerson rejects the idea of wetland reclamation, and plans to stand behind their demand for river protection. Emerson 2 "I mean if that's what people want! I mean that's crazy. There is a happy medium, and the happy medium is, you've got producers who've lived on this land for generations, and they've taken care of it, you know, and so my farmers are in a pile of hurt right now and they deserve every opportunity to rebuild their lives and their livelihoods." At the end of May, the Missouri Farm Bureau appealed to President Obama to expedite permanent levee repairs, and to find financial assistance to do so. So while the government ponders repairs and damage assessments, farmers like Ed Marshall will wait for their river bottom land to show its face.

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