Out of the depths

Soybeans should be growing here.

Instead, Matt Stock stands in a giant crater of quicksand created after a levee breach sent the Missouri River gushing through his family’s farm in Levasy, Mo.

When the water surged, Matt and his family had just finished moving corn out of a grain bin near their barn and shop in the river bottom. There was no time to move their 46 head of cattle out of the feedlot, which sat on higher ground.

“We went from minimal water to waist-high in about two hours,” Stock said. “Water was 3 to 4 feet deep here, and it stayed over the road for about three weeks. We took a boat or waded in to feed the cattle and check on things.”

Most of the farms and much of the town of Levasy, including MFA’s Agri Services location, were swamped by the early June floods. Matt’s father, Tom, and uncle, Dan, would normally grow about 350 acres of corn and soybeans in these highly productive, river-bottom fields. This year, they only have about 20 acres that will be harvested here. 

“When you farm in the bottoms, you’re used to water; this was just a big one,” said Matt, MFA agronomy specialist. “But you just have to deal with it. You can’t do anything about it. You just clean up and go again.”

Unfortunately, the Stocks are just one of many farm families affected by this spring’s unrelenting floods. Some areas in MFA terri­tory experienced high-water levels that came close to or even exceeded “The Great Flood of 1993,” the most damaging in recent memory and the largest economic disaster in Missouri history. The jury is still out on how 2019 will rank.

The duration is what sets this year’s flood apart. The troubles began in March as win­ter precipitation rapidly melted throughout the upper Midwest. Runoff from heavy and frequent rains in April and May continued to cause the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and their tributaries to overflow well into summer. This was Missouri’s wettest May since records began in 1895.

At press time in late July, many farms were still trying to dry out and assess the damage left behind—from sand deposits and extreme erosion to debris piles and weed invasions. Officials expect the flood fight to continue throughout the summer and into the fall. Re­covery will take much longer.

“We can’t do anything until we’re sure we can get in the fields, and it’s nasty out there,” Stock said. “We need to spray to get the weeds under control. There’s a lot of driftwood and trash and silt. Some areas are scoured clean; some spots look like sand dunes. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”

Loss estimates are yet to be determined, and so is the impact on MFA and its customers. Planting progress for corn and soybeans was historically behind schedule, and USDA ex­pects prevented planting crop insurance claims to surpass $1 billion nationwide, the highest since 2015. Undoubtedly, corn and soybean acres will be down in MFA territory, but the amount is hard to pinpoint given the ex­treme delays in planting. In fact, after its June acreage report was released, USDA announced intentions to resurvey farmers in advance of the August Crop Production report to get more accurate numbers.

USDA reports also indicate crop conditions are the worst since 2012, a year of extreme drought. Corn plantings this past April and the first half of May were detrimentally impacted by frequent heavy rains, and the majority of Missouri’s soybean crop was planted more than a month past the optimum planting date. For MFA, that not only affects input sales but will have a ripple effect with lower grain yields at harvest.

“We face daunting challenges along with many of our customers,” CEO Ernie Verslues said. “There are events that have occurred over the last year that we can’t change—drought, rains, floods, trade issues with our largest trading partners and others. But, I also know that our attitudes will determine how we work through these challenges—not only for MFA, but just as important, for our producers.”

Across MFA territory, employees and cus­tomers volunteered side-by-side to clear out fa­cilities and homes, relocate grain and fertilizer, fill and stack sandbags and move equipment and animals out of harm’s way. When the Lex­ington public water supply was in danger of being compromised by floodwaters, MFA sent trucks to pick up bottled water for patrons.

“In situations like these, MFA teamwork really comes to play,” said Craig Childs, vice president of Agri Services. “We had employ­ees come from other locations to help move product out at night and over weekends—all without complaint. The focus was on how we can take care of our customers and help our teammates. Efforts of everyone involved are very much appreciated.”

Along with the Levasy location, several other MFA facilities were affected by flooding along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. When MFA Agri Services in Jefferson City was forced to evacuate in late May, customers sprang to action and helped move products and equip­ment. Many of them offered their farms and trailers as temporary storage, said Location Manager Loren Luebbert.

“Farmers flocked in to help us haul things out, and some of them still have our inventory sitting on their farms,” Luebbert said. “We couldn’t have gotten out that quickly without them.”

The Jefferson City facility was immersed in several feet of water, and damage was extensive. The showroom had to be gutted, and employees are running the business out of a mobile office unit.

“It was pretty ugly in here,” said Lucas Schulte, counter salesman. “The water sat in the building for two and a half weeks without ventilation in the heat and humidity. We’ve had floods before, but never this much damage. If the water had come and went out in a week, it wouldn’t have been nearly this bad.”

MFA Agri Services at Norborne and Gallatin also were evacuated before they took on water. Several other MFA fertilizer plants and anhydrous fa­cilities were emptied and prepared for flooding. River levels hindered plant food transportation at barge-unloading sites such as MFA’s Palmyra terminal.

For weeks, Agri Services of Brunswick was an island only accessible by boat. Even though a levee was built around the facility after the flood of 1993, there were gaps at the entrance and dock. Employees worked fever­ishly—and successfully—to keep the water out with sandbags, concrete blocks and plywood barriers. None of the buildings or product got wet.

“It was pretty intense for a while,” said ASB Manager Kevin Holcer, who, along with several other staff members, even spent the night at the facility at the height of the flood. “We boated in about 25 employees every day to help sandbag and do maintenance. Now that the water is going down, we’re looking at what we can do proactively to keep this from happening again.”

MFA’s Canton Agri Services facility, situated only a few hundred feet from the Mississippi River, was evacuated at the end of May as a precaution, but the L-shaped levee that guards the town held true—barely.

“Water got within 18 inches of topping the levee but never did,” said Canton Location Manager Tony Chancellor. “It got so close that we moved out our chemicals, seed and fertilizer to be safe. We had 72 National Guard members here to help sandbag, and people brought about 50 ATVs to help move and pack them on the levee. The town really came together.”

Just down the road, however, customers such as Bill Lloyd weren’t so lucky. The 86-year-old producer and others who farm in the risky but rich river bottoms still had hundreds of cropland acres underwater in mid-June.

“This would have all been corn,” Lloyd said, looking out over his saturated fields just beyond the Canton city limits. “At one point, we had 500 acres flooded by backwater. Our corn acreage is going to be about a third of what we would normally grow, and the rest will be prevent plant. We’ll get some beans in, but they’re going to be planted a lot later than we’d like.”

Lloyd, who farms with his grandson, Dan McCutchen, said this year’s flood was the third-highest—behind 1993 and 2008—since his family moved to the area in 1935.

“This is excellent ground but not as good as it used to be because of the floods,” Lloyd said. “We have water every spring, and you expect that when you farm in the river bottoms. But these major floods seem to be happening a lot more often than they used to be.”

Levee breaches also inundated the Boonville bottoms, where MFA’s Train­ing Camp research plots are located. The fields remained under floodwaters for several weeks in late May and June, forcing agronomy personnel to can­cel the Training Camp field day for the first time since it began in 2012.

When the waters retreated in early July, they revealed a barren, cracked moonscape. However, MFA Director of Agronomy Jason Weirich said the fields weren’t severely damaged, and plans are to continue with research at the site again next spring—if weather and levees cooperate.

“There’s no Training Camp this year, but that’s small potatoes compared to what everyone else is going through,” Weirich said. “Luckily, we did have a second site on hill ground outside Columbia where we are able to do some corn and soybean research this year and set up smaller-scale tours.”

In a prediction no one wants to hear, Midwest flooding may be far from over, according to Tom Waters, a seventh-gener­ation farmer from Orrick, Mo. As chairman of the Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association, which formed after the 1993 flood, Waters testified about this most re­cent Missouri River flooding before the U.S. House subcommittee on July 10.

“We know it’s going to be high—above flood stage—probably through the rest of this summer, fall and into winter,” Waters told the Congressional leaders. “With over 100 levees breached along the Missouri River, flooding is going to continue to be a problem. It’s going to take a long time to recover these levees.”

While the river levee system is a shared responsibility among federal, state and local control, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provides rehabilitation assistance in repair­ing breached and damaged barriers. Waters noted the Corps is projecting it will take two years or more to fix the levees, but he thinks it will more like three to five years.

“This thing is going to drag on a long time, and it just trickles through the econ­omy of the state,” he said. “When you put Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska in there—the whole Midwest—it really will affect food production through the U.S. economy.”

Flood-weary farmers such as Wayne Smith of Waverly, Mo., would like to see immediate action taken to prevent future disasters. In late July, his farm and home were still submerged in Missouri River backwater, and he and his wife, Annette, had been living with their daughter’s family in nearby Marshall for two months.

Smith, who helps manage the Sugar Tree Levee District, said excessive releases from upstream reservoirs are exacerbating the problem. At the encouragement of Waters, he even wrote to the Corps of Engineers, expressing his concern.

“What I told them was, ‘We’re drowning here,’” Smith said. “We’ve got to have some relief. In my opinion, they’ve got too much water coming downstream. We need a chance to get rid of what’s stockpiled on all this farmland, and there’s nowhere for it to go because the river is staying too high.”

The 250 acres he owns and another 640 he farms were all flooded this spring. There will be no crops this year for Smith, a customer of Central Missouri Agri Services. He’s not sure there will be next year either.

“If we get to winter before the levees are fixed and the ground freezes, we’ll be in trouble again next spring,” Smith said. “If there is a hole in the levee, that land is not insurable. This year, I took prevented planting on it, which benefited me greatly, but next year, I will be planting at a huge risk of losing everything with no return. And I’m just one farmer. Everybody in these river bottoms is in the same shape.”

When he talked with Today’s Farmer on July 24, Smith and his wife were waiting until the river dropped enough that they could get back to their house and start the arduous cleanup process. He’s seen the predictions that water levels will remain high until fall and into the winter, and Smith said his heart sinks at the thought.

“I’m ready to move on,” he said. “I’ve appreciated the chance to stay with our grandkids while we’ve been flooded out, but there’s no place like home.”

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