Kaskaskia Island: Tenacity, tradition, tribulations

The sound of a thousand mosquitoes buzzed in their ears as they pushed their way through the thick woods and un­derbrush of southern Illinois along the Mississippi River. Sweat stung their eyes as they peered toward the Kaskaskia Native American village on the other side, just visible through a gap in the thick foliage of elms and oaks impeding their movement toward the east bank of the river. Wriggling tails of campfire smoke rose slowly toward the moody sky, which promised the imminent return of rain.

It had been raining sporadically but torrentially for nearly a week as Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette, a Catholic missionary, and French-Canadian explorer Louis Jolliet hewed their way from their overnight campsite toward the river bank, back to their worthy boat and across the Mississippi toward the village.

They were hungry. They were tired. And everything they had was wet.

The year was 1675, and only two years had slid by before Father Marquette and Jolliet made their missionary return to this area. The Kaskaskia natives and French traders eagerly awaited their arrival.

The boat carrying the weary two gently ran aground on the bank of the Mississippi, lurching the passengers slightly forward. Jolliet jumped out and into the sticky clay, water up to his knees, to help pilot the boat further inland. Marquette couldn’t help a slight grin as he watched the natives’ excitement. Presently, Jolliet pulled the boat far enough ashore to secure it, and both disembarked onto solid ground. The missionary and his companion explorer were greeted warmly and provided shelter and warmth.

* * *

Later, Marquette would proclaim the nascent church in the village as the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady. Although he died on his way back to Quebec, in 1703 other French Jesuits transferred their Illinois Native American mission from the Illinois River near Starved Rock to Kas­kaskia in present-day Randolph County, Ill.

“When the French first came (to Kaskaskia Island), they had to start from scratch with whatever they had,” said Emily Lyons, Kaskaskia historian and former Island of Kaskaskia primary school teacher. “They built it up until it was the most prosperous town in the whole area for many years.”

Kaskaskia had by then become a relatively well-known trade and agricul­tural stop along the Mississippi River. The relationship between Kaskaskia natives and French traders was peaceful and neighborly, punctuated by fair dealing and brotherly love.

Because the river’s path has changed over time, Kaskaskia Island is the only inhabited piece of Illinois land west of the Mississippi. Hundreds of years ago, the Mississippi and Kaskaskia rivers were slower moving and created a peninsula at Kaskaskia. In 1881, a harsh win­ter froze the Mississippi, creating an ice dam that dredged through that peninsula. Today, those rivers have changed so much that Kaskaskia is now considered an island, separat­ing it geographically from the rest of Illinois and Missouri.

Islanders grew so prosperous after Western settlement that Kaskaskia was the home of Illinois’ first territorial capitol in 1809 and first state capitol in 1818, after Illinois became the 21st state. Despite Kaskaskia’s historical pros­perity, the island has seen multiple, devastating flooding events, often resulting in major reconstruction, restoration and rebuilding efforts. The first village, closer to north end of the island, is partially buried under river sediment or washed away. The only hint of the old town’s original 325 acres is whispered by clusters of standing trees, marking probable structural foundations of houses or businesses. Most recently the great flood of 1993, which submerged parts of the new town in water, reduced the population on the island to a mere fraction of what it once was.

Dan Lankford is one of the last full-time residents on the island. He and his son, Alex, tend more than 1,200 acres of farmland in Kaskaskia—mostly corn and soybean. Lankford also served 12 years as levee commissioner.

“I had 13 feet of water in my house in ’93,” Lank­ford said. “But it was still standing. We just had to put in some insulation, sheetrock and fix it back up. So that’s what we did.”

Other farmers who did not have as much resolve or resiliency were forced to the surrounding areas. But islanders had seen a perhaps even more devastating flood in 1973, during which the school, homes, busi­nesses and other structures were mostly or entirely destroyed.

“In ’73 there were over 300 (residents of Kaskaskia),” Lankford said. That particular flood destroyed large portions of the new town.

At the same time, as farms and farming equipment expanded in size, the number of farmers needed to do the work shrunk, Lyons said. Many residents found work elsewhere, and an 8-to-5 job displaced full-time farming as a way of life.

The cost to rebuild is still another obstacle to remaining on Kaskaskia Island. Flood insurance is often economically pro­hibitive, said Lyons. Insurance and FEMA payouts are often not enough to entirely compensate for a total or even partial loss of farm equipment and inputs or rebuilding essential farming structures. And even though some Kaskaskia farmers continue to toil and till, their children may have explored other educa­tional and career opportunities.

Today, Lankford said he is one of the last full-time farmers and only one of about 50 residents who still live on the island. Records show just 11 island farmers continue to grow the Missouri and Illinois favorites there: corn, wheat and soybean. These farmers also rent acreage from several landowners.

So, if flooding continues to decimate crops and property on Kaskaskia Island, why do people persist in farming the land?

“You’re never going to find better dirt anywhere,” said Mary Sulser, full-time island resident and Village treasurer. That dirt is classified as “gumbo,” a heavy, sticky, clay soil that is rich in free-ion potassium, calcium, magnesium and sodium—nutri­ents essential to healthy crop growth. Kaskaskia’s relatively high water table, in concert with its abundantly fertile soil, helps feed and water hungry crops. Farming on the island can mean big yields and big profits for farmers.

That is, when the Mississippi River doesn’t interrupt agricul­tural efforts on the island.

To that end, a 21-mile-long levee was built around a major­ity of the farmland on Kaskaskia by the Army Corps of Engi­neers in 1916, Lyons said. After the 1973 flood, the levee was reinforced to its present height. Additionally, the section of the Mississippi that curves around the island was dredged and channeled to help mitigate heavy floods, Lyons said. However, that increased river water velocity. So now if it floods, faster, more furious river water pours over the levees of Kaskaskia.

“We came very close to a (levee) breach in 2019,” Sulser said. That year Missouri and Illinois saw record flooding, resulting in devastating losses for many river towns. In Kaskaskia, volunteer sandbaggers and workers helped keep the levee together and the swelling Mississippi River out.

“We don’t always get along, but when push comes to shove, Kaskaskians come together,” Sulser said.

In fact, almost all public service on the island is comprised of volunteers. “We all volunteer in some way,” Sulser said, whether that be maintaining the levee or organizing several village-wide celebration and tourism opportunities. The Independence Day and Labor Day gatherings are boons for the village’s economy. Lyons manages tours of historic properties, such as the Kas­kaskia Immaculate Conception Church and nearby Liberty Bell of the West Shrine. And although maintaining accurate histor­ical records, archiving data and the conservation of physical artifacts of the past is a full-time occupation, she doesn’t get paid a gumbo cent to do it.

“It’s a 24/7 job,” Lyons said. “These old places take a lot of maintenance, and there’s always the fundraising to keep that maintenance (going). You answer phones and emails at all hours, and you have to adapt to whatever is going on right now.”

Conservation of the few standing historic sites on the island requires a lot of work and money, especially after major flood­ing, either from non-draining rain or levee breach, Lyons said. The 1993 flood forced the Kaskaskia church to temporarily relocate its icons. In the flood’s aftermath, the parish made major renovations to the church’s woodwork, altar and interior accouterments involved in Catholic worship and service.

After the 2019 flooding, the historic church rectory partially sank into the ground, said MFA Precision Agriculture Specialist Rob Rickenburg, who grew up in the area. Rickenburg is now assigned to the MFA agricultural district that services Kaskaskia Island.

“I actually watched contractors drill into the bedrock of the island to install lifts under the rectory’s foundation,” he said. “I couldn’t believe what they were able to do. It took a while, but they got it back right.” Retired MFA employee Tom Sutterer volunteered two weekends to reinforce the rectory by filling its basement with concrete, Rickenburg said.

Today, the Kaskaskia Immaculate Conception Church still holds regu­lar services. Inside, various relics and religious artifacts dating back to the early 18th century continue to adorn the bright white walls and complement the intricate stained glass windows. An elaborately hand-crafted baptismal font nestles in the corner of the chancel, near the sanctuary. The ornately hand-carved altar also was restored by professional woodworkers who specialize in historical carpentry. And the original pipe organ with its glinting, polished brass still yawns its hollow tubes toward the vaulted ceiling.

“I just like to make sure that the history of our ancestors and the history and contributions that Kaskaskia has given to the whole state of Illinois are still out there,” Lyons said. “I feel it’s part of my experience or my representation to make sure that the story is told truthfully. There are so many wild stories. There’s some people who are good storytellers but never let the facts keep them down.”

On the other hand, there are some residents of Kaskaskia who never let a good flood keep them down. Mary Sulser and her husband, Mike, the village president, refuse to relocate off the island. They completely rebuilt their home using their original floor plan after the 1993 flooding—but this time on 18-foot-tall stilts. It’s the only house in Kaskaskia built that high off the ground.

“It’s a sense of freedom,” Sulser said. “You don’t have to worry about raising your kids. It’s not like the bigger towns and cities.”

Kaskaskia children attend school in the nearby town, Ches­ter, Ill., and violent crime rates and other criminal predation is relatively low, according to several state data-reporting sites. Children and grandchildren may play outside, explore the island, ride bikes and generally have the idyllic rural childhood.

It’s not just the relatively low crime rate, or the fertile soil or the rich history that draw people to the island. Maybe it’s also a handshake and a trustworthy smile. Or maybe that it’s a geographical ornament, suspended between two rivers full of fish, where the Milky Way can still be seen at night. What­ever “it” may be, there seems to be something about Kaskaskia that draws people to it through space and time, whether it’s to celebrate special times of year or to stand on the ground where others survived flood, fire and famine.

Kaskaskia’s gravitational pull that beckoned Father Marquette and Louis Jolliet centuries ago and built a classic American town endures just as strong today.

This is Andrew B. Church's first article with Today's Farmer magazine. We are looking forward to his contributions to the magazine.

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FDA takes veterinary feed directive to next level

VFDWhen new FDA guidelines go into effect in two years, only veterinarians such as Dr. Jessica Stroupe of Fayette, Mo., will be able to prescribe animal antibiotics that were previously available over the counter.New guidelines issued in June by the FDA will effectively end over-the-counter antibiotic use in animal agriculture.

The agency’s guidance for industry (GFI) 263 puts more “medically important” animal health drugs under veteri­nary oversight. It’s a follow-up to 2017 FDA rules that took feed-through and water-soluble forms of these products to prescription status, requiring a veterinary feed directive for purchase and use. The intent was to eliminate the use of antimicrobials for production purposes, such as growth pro­motion, and only allow veterinarians to prescribe them when necessary for the treatment, control or prevention of specific diseases.

This latest document requests that animal health compa­nies voluntarily start labeling, marketing and distributing the remaining forms of over-the-counter (OTC) antibiot­ics—injectable, topical and oral products—as prescrip­tion-only. Once the change is made, these medications can only be used in animals under the supervision of a licensed veterinarian.

According to the FDA, about 96% of medically important antimicrobials used in animals are now under veterinary oversight. The remaining 4% will be covered by the new guidance for industry. Dr. Tony Martin, MFA Incorporated manager of animal health, said current OTC products that will be affected include penicillin, tetracycline, erythromycin, sulfamethazine, sulfadimethoxine and tylosin, among others.

“This situation is not totally new information,” Martin said. “We knew shortly after the VFD regulation went into effect in 2017 that the remaining OTC versions of these same anti­biotics would likely be the next group to be scrutinized and regulated. The new FDA guidance confirms that the change is now underway.”

Implementation of the new regulations will take place over a two-year timeframe. FDA plans to work with affected stake­holders and state partners to answer questions and provide assistance in the transition process.

“Producers need to be preparing to access the affected products either directly from their veterinarian or through use of a written prescription provided by a veterinarian for their acquisition and use when this process is completed in two years,” Martin said. “When it is all said and done, MFA and other retail locations will no longer be able to legally stock and sell the affected products.”

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Planting for premiums

It’s been 25 years since Roundup Ready soybeans hit the market, an event that dramatically changed agriculture.

Those first commercially available biotech seeds—created through transgenic breeding—revolutionized weed control with tolerance to over-the-top glypho­sate applications. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. Many more genetically engineered traits have been introduced since then to address issues such as plant diseases and pests, drought tolerance and enhanced nutritional content.

Given the agronomic advantages, biotech seed now accounts for 95% of soy­bean acres, 93% of all corn acres and 97% percent of upland cotton acres planted in the United States. That means only a small frac­tion of growers plant “conventional” crops—those that aren’t categorized as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Missouri producers Mike Moreland and Jake Taylor are among that minority.

Moreland, who farms with his brother, Jay, and oldest son, Matt, in Harrison­ville, Mo., grew two varieties of conventional soybeans on about 650 acres this year. Taylor, a first-generation farmer in Columbia, Mo., is converting his 500 acres of row-crop ground into certified organic production. Growing non-GMO crops is part of that process.

“I started farming in 2014 and figured out pretty quick that I had to either get really big to spread my overhead costs over more acres, or I had to figure out a way to make more money on fewer acres,” Taylor said. “That’s when I switched over to non-GMO crops with the idea of eventually going organic. There’s a mar­ket for this, and there are companies willing to pay a premium for growing crops a certain way.”

Indeed, there is demand for non-GMO crops in both the feed and food industry, fueled by a complex and controversial consumer-level debate. As such, “non-GMO” labeling is becoming more prevalent on grocery store shelves. Many coun­tries, including a majority of the European Union, ban the production or import of GMO crops. And recent research suggests that the global market for food made with non-genetically modified organisms could increase at an annual growth rate of more than 15% from now through 2026.

In response, manufacturers that want non-GMO ingredients are willing to make it worthwhile for farmers to grow them. Both Taylor and Moreland say the promise of a premium price is the reason they grow non-GMO. Taylor’s organic corn and soybeans are used in poultry and hog feed. He also grows food-grade non-GMO soybeans that will end up in products such as tofu or tempeh, a fermented soy cake often used to replace meat in a vegetarian diet. The Morelands sell their non-GMO soybeans through an identity-preserved contract with a nearby grain company. The beans will eventually be exported to south­east Asia, where soy-based foods make up a large portion of the consumer’s diet and non-GMO products are in demand.

“Even with today’s $14-$15 beans, we’ll still get a premium of up to $1.50 per bushel on top of those prices for growing what these markets want,” Moreland said. “And yields with these non-GMOs have been comparable. We saw 55-plus, even 60, bushels per acre last year.”

However, those premiums don’t come easy. Producing non-GMO crops requires stringent cleaning procedures for com­bines and equipment, segregated storage, inventive ways of dealing with weed and insect pressures and careful scrutiny by the contracting company.

The Morelands don’t mind the rigorous standards. They have grown seed beans for around 20 years, so the leap to non-GMO wasn’t much of a stretch. They started with about 150 acres of conventional soybeans about four years ago. This year, the Mo­relands weren’t asked to grow seed, so they devoted those fields to non-GMO, too.

“With seed beans, we were used to the whole system of keeping everything clean and following all the protocols,” Mo­reland said. “For example, you have to vacuum out the planter between varieties, and make sure every last bean is out of the grain bins. The biggest thing is the combine. It takes four hours just to clean it out. But the extra money we get is worth the extra work.”

The protocols for certified organic production are even more strict, Taylor said, requiring meticulous rules and record-keep­ing. The fields have to be farmed for 36 months as if they were organic, which means only using USDA-approved practices. Plant nutrition and soil fertility must be managed through till­age and cultivation, crop rotations and cover crops. Animal and crop waste materials and some synthetic products can also be used. Pests, weeds and diseases can only be controlled through physical, mechanical and biological practices.

“It takes a lot of time, and if you’re not a detailed paperwork person, it could be a disaster,” Taylor said. “You have to track every sort of field activity—when you did it, what you did, what you used. Everything’s traceable.”

Taylor said he considers weed control one of the most daunt­ing challenges in both non-GMO and certified organic crops. He uses a specialized cultivator, the Austrian-made Einbock Chopstar, to remove weeds early in the season. As the inno­vative implement moves through the field, a camera pointed down at the crop continually sends a message to the hydraulics and adjusts the position of its harrows between the rows.

Later in the season, Taylor uses another implement called the Weed Zapper to control weeds that grow above the crop’s cano­py. This machine kills weeds by sending electricity down their stems and rupturing the plant cells.

“You’ve got to have the right equipment to do this, and it’s not cheap,” Taylor said. “One thing I don’t like about organic production is the amount of tillage required. That’s bothersome to me, but it’s something we have to do.”

Because the Morelands aren’t growing their non-GMO soybeans organically, they have more freedom in their inputs and practices. They use regular agricultural fertilizers and crop protection products, and all of the farm’s non-GMO ground is no-till. After an effective burndown, the crop only needs to be sprayed once more in season, he said, if conditions cooperate. The family usually relies on West Central AGRIServices to make that application.

“You definitely have fewer weapons when it comes to weed control, so you have to make sure you start clean in order to stay clean,” Moreland said. “We follow a strict rotation of corn and soybeans, and that’s helped. We also have a good residual program that works until we come back in with whatever product we can use in a non- GMO situation.”

Extra weed pressure can also make plant nutrition a challenge in non-GMO crops, said Kaitlin Flick, MFA district agronomist. Those undesirable plants can compete with the crop for soil nutrients, which means scouting becomes crucial to ensure growers keep weeds under control and provide sup­plemental plant nutrition if necessary. To that end, MFA’s Crop-Trak and Nutri-Track programs can be a tremendous benefit for non-GMO and organic crop production, Flick added. She and other MFA agronomists can work closely with growers to help accomplish their goals.

“A lot of time and energy and money are invested into these special projects, so we want to help growers maximize their profits,” Flick said. “We start by learn­ing about their expectations, where they’re selling the crops and what their yield goals are. Knowing those things, we can check in throughout the season to help keep the crop on target. In niche markets like these, especially, you want to be proactive instead of reactive when it comes to potential problems in the field.”

Careful handling at harvest is also a major consider­ation, Moreland said.

“They want the beans clean—no weeds, no corn, no mold or mildew—and they want them kept in very good condition,” Moreland said. “We bought a belt conveyor a few years ago, so all the beans go in and out on that belt, instead of an auger, which can dam­age them. The premium is based on quality. The better the quality, the more money we get.”

During the three-year organic certification period, his crops can’t be sold as organic, Taylor ex­plained. He is growing non-GMO soybeans in the fields that are still in transition. They will bring the $1-to-$2-per-bushel premium of­fered for non-GMO grain, whereas organic production usually garners twice the regular commodity mar­ket price, he said.

“It needs to be about double to justify the extra input costs and the time you put into organic produc­tion,” Taylor said.

Ultimately, non-GMO and organic crop production involves the same basic agronomic princi­ples and problems as traditional farming, both Moreland and Taylor point out. They still have to manage fertility, weeds, insects and diseases. They still have to plant and harvest in a timely manner. They still have to worry about the weather, the environment and government regulations. They just have to manage and market their crops a little differently.

“When it comes down to it, we’re really just doing old-school farming with a lot more tools in our tool belt than growers had back then,” Taylor said. “It’s not always easy, but it does pay in the end.”

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