Forecast in, farmers can simply wait

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 20, 2002

Sherman’s Defeat Plantation employee Robert Jones points to a field of corn predicted to be under flood waters this week. Jones and other workers spent time late last week moving equipment from the farm land off Chickasaw Road.(The Vicksburg Post/C. TODD SHERMAN)

[05/19/02]Warren County farmers are preparing for flood waters predicted to rise two feet above flood stage to destroy much of the crop already in the ground.

“All that pretty corn is about to go under,” Tom McKnight said as he looked out over the acres of waist-high plants growing on the Belle Meade Plantation.

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McKnight and other Warren County farmers have no choice but to wait and watch after forecasters projected the Mississippi River will crest at 45 feet May 31. At that level, waters will begin to push back into the Yazoo and pour over roads, farms and some homes in areas just north of Vicksburg.

McKnight has been farming the 2,800-acre farm off Chickasaw Road since 1978. He expects to lose about 2,600, or about 93 percent, of those acres to the invading waters.

Flooding occurs in areas along Chickasaw Road and Kings Point Island when the Mississippi River reaches levels high enough to back into the Yazoo River. Water in the Mississippi also cuts through the blowout at Pawpaw Chute, near where the Yazoo formerly dumped into the Mississippi, and adds to the water flowing south in the Yazoo.

The combined waters from the Mississippi dumping into the Yazoo at two ends start flooding areas along Chickasaw and Kings Point when the Mississippi gets above 36.5 feet.

The river was at 39.9 feet Saturday and rising.

“At 43 (feet) you stop coming out here,” McKnight said.

For farmers like McKnight, insurance that covers crop loss due to natural disasters can be the difference between breaking even at the end of the year and losing thousands of dollars. But, Brad Bradway, another farmer along Chickasaw Road, said the coverage will do little to help the farmers.

“The flood insurance is a joke,” Bradway said.

Flood insurance through the federal government can cost farmers $50 per crop to $37 an acre each year, which can add up to nearly $100,000 for some farmers. The area around Chickasaw Road is considered high-risk because of the frequency of flooding and rates have steadily increased, Bradway said.

But the insurance won’t cover the cost of planting the corn, and that can add up to $120 an acre for seed, fertilizer and herbicide, McKnight said. His insurance will pay $40 per acre for corn crop lost to the flood.

“You can’t afford to have it, but you can’t afford not to,” McKnight said.

President Bush signed a $190 billion farm bill Monday guaranteeing higher subsidies to growers in Midwestern and Southern states. The farm bill raises subsidy rates for grain and cotton growers and revives a target-price system abolished by the 1996 Freedom to Farm law to provide supplemental income when commodity prices are below certain levels.

Those subsidies will help farmers like McKnight make up for their losses, “but I’d rather keep the crop,” he said.

If the water recedes quickly, some farmers can plant soybeans into June instead of planting earlier and harvesting in August. McKnight was preparing fields this week in hopes of planting soybeans later while others, like Bradway, were moving equipment to higher ground.

Bradway said something that could alleviate the problems facing farmers this year is a proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a 10.7-mile levee along an access road that runs through the properties of Anderson-Tully Co. and a few families on Kings Point Island.

The levee road would connect with the existing Mississippi River levee near Eagle Lake Road and provide a passage to the area during high-water times. During moderate flood years such as this one, the levee would keep most of the water off farms along Chickasaw.

The $5.2 million to $8 million project is currently under study by the Corps, but Warren County supervisors have been reluctant to spend money on the project.

At $4.8 billion annually, agriculture is Mississippi’s No. 1 industry and directly or indirectly employs about 30 percent of the state’s workforce.

About 43,000 farms in the state cover 11.1 million acres.

Along with the farm land, several county roads will have to be closed as waters rise. Long Lake and Chickasaw roads near Vicksburg and Ziegler and Laney Camp roads near Lake Chotard will be virtually cut off, except by boat.

Flooding will also begin in Ford Subdivision when the river reaches a level of 43.5 feet.