Milus Wallace watched floodwaters from the swollen Mississippi River destroy his home, farm buildings, and 1,300 acres of crops in May of 2011. One year later, he planted corn on 250 of those acres, only to watch it wither and die from scorching heat and dryness.



In just two short years, southeastern Missouri communities along the Mississippi have undergone the full spectrum of agricultural disasters. After enduring the historic flood of 2011, this region is now wilting under some of the most extreme drought conditions in the entire country.


Milus Wallace watched floodwaters from the swollen Mississippi River destroy his home, farm buildings, and 1,300 acres of crops in May of 2011. One year later, he planted corn on 250 of those acres, only to watch it wither and die from scorching heat and dryness.

In just two short years, southeastern Missouri communities along the Mississippi have undergone the full spectrum of agricultural disasters. After enduring the historic flood of 2011, this region is now wilting under some of the most extreme drought conditions in the entire country.

"A lot of my corn didn't even come up," Wallace told DTN. "We kept waiting on the rain, waiting on the rain, and it just didn't come." His fields have seen only 2 inches of rain since May, a far cry from the wall of water that cascaded over these Missouri Bootheel bottomlands last spring. In a controversial decision to lower high water levels, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blew three holes along the Birds Point levee over the course of three days. The breach flooded 140,000 acres of farmland and decimated the tiny town of Pinhook, Mo.

A SHRINKING RIVER

The same river that raced across farmers' fields last year is now at historically low water levels from Missouri down to the Gulf of Mexico. The mighty Mississippi's flow has been so weakened that saltwater is seeping back into the water systems of cities near the Gulf. The sea is no longer held at bay by the force of the river disgorging into the Gulf.

The Corps' dredging vessels are working non-stop to keep the river 9 feet deep, the minimum depth needed for navigation, but low water levels have forced harbor closures and stalled barge traffic. Most recently, the Corps temporarily closed an 11-mile stretch of the river near Greensville, Miss., after dozens of barges ran aground. Barges are carrying less and moving slower, and the Coast Guard has put restrictions on how wide and long each barge can be, Steve Barry, emergency manager for the Army Corps of Engineer's Memphis District, told DTN.

Last year at this time, the gauge at Cairo, Ill., just upriver from the Birds Point levee, measured water levels at nearly 25 feet. This year, the gauge is nearing 8 feet, with no rain in sight. While low levels in the main channel slow the transport of millions of tons of grain, coal, and fertilizer on the river, the bigger problem for farmers is the harbors where they load their harvests, Barry said.

For the first time since it opened in 1988, the New Madrid County Port Authority can no longer load and unload barges in its harbor, where water levels have dropped to 3 feet, Executive Director Timmie Hunter told DTN. The three companies using the port -- a rice mill, a wholesale fertilizer company, and an agricultural technology company -- must move their products by truck or train, until the harbor can be dredged. "But the Corps has a limited number of dredges," Barry noted, "and some harbors aren't scheduled to be dredged until September." New Madrid County Port is among these harbors, and their dredging date has been moved from late August to early September. The Corps has a $15 million dredging budget, but Barry estimates it will only get them through September this year.

THE FARMER'S PERSPECTIVE

Kevin Mainord is mayor of East Prairie, Mo., a town whose 3,200 residents rely largely on agriculture for their livelihood. The floods of last year turned East Prairie into "an island, surrounded by water to the east, south, and west," Mainord told DTN. Nearly all of the 140,000 acres destroyed by the levee breach have recovered well, he said, and all but 2% to 3% were planted this spring, only to weather the worst drought in decades this summer.

He farms 10,000 acres, and 5,200 of them are in the floodway. Last year, he managed to replant all of the flooded acres into soybeans, which did quite well. But this year, drought has fried a lot of his dryland corn and beans. An early corn harvest produced 30 bushels per acre on his sandier dryland soils, and he estimates the dryland bean crop won't be above 10 to 15 bushels per acre.

Fortunately, irrigated acreage, which accounts for half of Mainord's fields, is holding up well. As the water level drops on the Mississippi, however, it will be a struggle to make a profit.

"Ninety percent of the corn from this area goes to the river, down to the Gulf," to be shipped overseas, he said. Mainord himself expects to send 600,000 bushels of corn down river before the summer is over. Low water levels have forced barge operators to load lighter and slow down the pace of their trips, and their costs have increased. Farmers will most likely have to shoulder some losses soon, Mainord noted, as grain harvest proceeds, and slowed barge traffic is unable to accommodate it.

Companies such as those that use the New Madrid County port have already had to change their transportation methods, turning to more expensive alternatives, like trains, trucks, or more distant harbors. "Costs do trickle down to the producer, and we all pay for it in the end," Hunter said.

The only upside to the dry weather, both Mainord and Major Jon Korneliussen, the Corps' project engineer for the levee rebuilding project, noted, is that it has allowed construction crews to work on rebuilding the blown levee with little interruption.

The Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, passed by Congress last December, gave the Corps $1.7 billion to do emergency repairs, and rebuilding the Birds Point levee was a priority, Korneliussen told DTN. The levee now stands at 55 feet, and multiple contractors have been hired to build it back to its original height of 62.5 feet by the end of this year, Korneliussen said.

The dry weather that has devastated farmers this year has given contractors lots of good work days, but it still isn't an ideal situation for construction, Korneliussen noted. "It's a double-edged sword," he said, "They've made great progress at the levee, but it's so dry that they've actually had to add moisture back into the soil at times."

Wallace is also taking advantage of the dry days. He's building a new farmhouse, and hopes to move in by Christmas. It's in the exact same spot in the floodway, but anchored this time to a base of concrete blocks that will hold the house 14 feet above ground level.

Two record-setting natural disasters two seasons in a row haven't fazed him. "I've been farming on my own for 45 years," he said. "You gotta take it as it comes, and keep moving forward."

"Farmers are a resilient people," Mainord noted. "We've had two years of tremendous challenges but no one's throwing in the towel just yet."