HOLT COUNTY, Mo. – Temporary levees serve as signposts on the road to recovery from floods in northwestern Missouri that brought thousands of acres of farming to a screeching halt in 2011.
As Morris Heitman surveyed the sand dunes and half-mile hole in the Mill Creek levee, he’s looking forward to farming after the flood.
“To be a farmer you have to be somewhat optimistic. That goes with the lay of the land,” Heitman said. “You might say it looks barren, bleak and devoid of life, but it really isn’t. This is not the norm or close to the norm, and we’re just trying to get back to the level we were at preflood and have a stronger system than we had.”
Back to farming
A little luck has made recovery easier.
An open winter – unusually warm and fairly dry – gave farmers time to plan replacement levees and clean debris from fields. Since floodwaters came from reservoirs in northern states, the water was cleaner, leaving less contamination in fields.
Those with only a few inches of silt and sand on fields have worked to plow their acres, mixing it in with existing topsoil.
“Soil particles have different sizes and sand falls out first because it’s the heaviest,” said Wayne Flanary, a University of Missouri Extension agronomist for Holt County. “The lighter materials – silt then clay– string out as you get farther from levee breaches. If we have layers of different-sized soil particles, water doesn’t move through those layers very readily. Another issue is if there was backwater, waters were saline. That high salt content could hurt next season’s crops if rains don’t filter that salt through the soil.”
Those closer to the river are coping with fields where flood currents scoured the topsoil and left sand drifts up to 6 feet high.
“There are places in this field where if you were standing on original ground level, you wouldn’t be able to see to each side of you because it’s over your head,” Heitman said. “Sand deposits that size is just huge amount of cubic yards, so it’s very difficult to repair.”
A hole in the system
The 2011 flood left 51 holes in 52 miles of Missouri River levees that border Holt County. More than 65,000 acres of farmland sat underwater for four months and nearby towns like Corning and Big Lake were hit hard by floodwaters. Another 55,000 acres of towns and houses also suffered severely from sitting underwater.
In Holt County, a mishmash of 17 individual levee districts made securing funds for levee repairs a more complicated and time-consuming matter than in nearby Atchison County.
“We’re trying to dance with four different agencies,” Heitman said. FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the state of Missouri and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service are all involved in levee repairs. “All these agencies have their own requirements and parameters, and we’re trying to coordinate those to build a secure system against the river.”
Repairs mean protection as well as relief from sky-high crop insurance rates. Once levees are in place, those rates will drop
Heitman hopes that a permanent levee will replace the temporary one by July 1.
But new levees don’t mean all acres will be back in production. Because of damage, 20,000-30,000 acres in Holt County will not produce a crop this year, and 10,000 of those acres will likely never produce a crop again.
Holt County Clerk Kathy Kunkel knows this because the county assessor’s office has been traveling around the county, mapping the damage and adjusting the tax roll. Much of the county’s farmland will be downgraded this year.
“For people who haven’t been here, it’s hard to understand the devastation that’s occurred on the ground,” Kunkel said. “Since waters didn’t recede until October, most of the structures were in deplorable condition on Jan. 1. This will absolutely affect our tax base. Prior to this flood, most of our ground was in the highest category, and just in the town of Big Lake, 400 homes were flooded. Most will go from having a value of $120,000 to being bulldozed and just being the value of the lot.”
Kunkel hopes another year will mean farmers and homeowners will rehabilitate, rebuild and boost the tax base for the county.
New year, a new crop
Flanary said most farmland will produce some kind of crop this year, and that’s a good step forward.
“When growers plant this year, even under ideal conditions, they probably won’t have the yields they’d have in a normal year,” he said. “They know it’s going to take time for this to fully recover.”
Flanary said MU Extension’s work with communities also facilitates the long-term recovery effort.
“There’s been quite a bit of change in demographics of the river bottom, with folks deciding to not move back,” he said. “MU Extension is not just involved with agriculture but also has partnered with communities to develop and work to move them all ahead.”
Heitman is ready to tackle that hard work.
“You can go year after year and not have the situation we had in 2011,” he said. “My family has owned this farm for 130 years, so we don’t expect to go anywhere.”