FACES OF THE FLOODS: Third-generation landowner details flood’s impact on businesses

Published 4:00 am Saturday, October 22, 2022

Faces of the Floods is a series by The Vicksburg Post that tells the stories of people impacted by catastrophic floods in the Yazoo Backwater area.

For Onward, Miss., native Blake Ward, life in the South Mississippi Delta was mapped out generations before.

His grandfather, Ralph Farrell, arrived in the nearby community of Blanton by train decades ago and worked to build a life and a future for his family. His 1,200-acre farm, later to be known as Sojamax Farms (derived from the Latin phrase for “great soybean”), boasted the first on-land grain elevator in Mississippi.

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Farrell died when Ward was 8 years old, leaving the farm to his daughters. When Ward turned 18, his mother turned the books over to him and he’s been managing it ever since.

In addition to Sojamax Farms, which is leased to a neighboring farmer, Ward also operates South Delta Hunting Club and Delta Precision Shooting on his family’s land.

The Yazoo Backwater Flood of 2019 — and minor flooding events before and after — nearly derailed all three businesses.

“The flooding we saw in 2018, 2019 and 2020 put a troublesome burden on all three of our businesses,” Ward said. “Everyone remembers 2019, but starting in 2018, the backwater flooding began to rise in the winter. It usually doesn’t start until March, April, May. But this time it started in December.

“When the Mississippi River starts to rise, it doesn’t matter if it’s at flood stage or not. It’s not the level of the river; it’s only in relation to the backwater level. You look at the relationship between the two,” he added. “When the relationship between the two is equal, the backwater just sits there. And what it is, is rainfall.”

As it keeps raining, the backwater has nowhere to go.

In 2018, deer hunting season for the club was shut down early. However, come planting time, a small percentage of farmland was still usable. That wasn’t the case in 2019.

“Well, 2019 comes and it’s the same exact picture as 2018 except it started earlier and was greater severity,” Ward said. “This is income. The impact on the wildlife is a whole other conversation, but our normal business model was disrupted at this point as well.”

As Ward said, deer, squirrels and turkeys don’t live in the ocean. So, when their habitats are tens of feet underwater and there is limited access to dry land, the animal population suffered.

Ward said there wasn’t a foot of his 1,500-acre property untouched by floodwaters. Sojamax Farms encompasses approximately 800 acres of agricultural land, and the remainder has been reforested through federal programs.

“Our entire property was underwater, all the agricultural land. Not a seed was planted that year,” he said. “But it’s notable to mention that much of the South Delta has been reforested.”

For Ward, it’s all connected: The floods, the farms, the reforested areas and the federal government.

“When I was a boy, everything west of the Little Sunflower River and Highway 61 was, when I was a boy, one big soybean field. Not a tree on the whole place, tens of thousands of acres,” he said. “Look at the map today and the majority of it is reforested. Why would someone choose to reforest their land instead of farm it?

“Why would someone choose to reforest their land instead of farm it, and put it in a lifetime perpetual conservation easement?” he added. “Because it was the most prone to flooding — and what kind of flooding? Man-made flooding.”

In Ward’s opinion, much of the economic strife felt by agriculture business owners in the South Delta is due to the incompletion of the Yazoo Backwater Pumps Project. He said as much to delegates from the Biden Administration during an Aug. 24 listening session at South Delta High School in Rolling Fork.

And for Ward, there’s only one solution to the problem: Finish the Pumps.

“You’ve already taken our farmland out of production. Don’t then deny us flood control for what land is left,” he said. “The only land that’s left is good, tillable, arable land. The rest has already been reforested.”

If you or someone you know is a South Delta resident impacted by the Yazoo Backwater Floods, email The Vicksburg Post’s Managing Editor at anna.guizerix@vicksburgpost.com to share your story.