Flood Recovery Far From Finished For Missouri Farmers

One year after the flood of 2011, recovery is far from finished for local farmers whose land was devastated by the Missouri River.
by | June 7, 2012

KANSAS CITY, Mo. _ Near Bean Lake in Platte County is a stretch of land known as Harpst Island, where farmer Bob Baker's family has worked the land for about 100 years.

The gravel road that snakes through the farm cuts past rows of sprouting corn stalks and tiny soybean plants just pushing out of the soil. But this year the scenery changes abruptly closer to the riverbank. It could be mistaken for the Sahara Desert. The land is covered in fine, almost-white sand, and on the horizon a couple of bulldozers are shoveling it away.

One year after the flood of 2011, recovery is far from finished for local farmers whose land was devastated by the Missouri River.

Many still work to clear their land of debris and sand and wait for levees that are meant to protect it to be fixed. These farmers are in it for the long haul, prepared for the years it will take to remedy damage and hoping the fields they've been able to salvage will yield a successful crop. While the full impact of the flood is unknown, it is clear that some land has been damaged beyond use, said Jim Crawford, a University of Missouri Extension natural resource engineer in Atchison County, Mo.

"There are a significant number of acres that were destroyed," Crawford said.

Baker was among the area farmers hit hardest by the flood, which occurred when heavy rain and snowfall to the north forced dam releases along the Missouri River, sending a slow-moving wall of water from Montana to Missouri.

The swelling Missouri River spared only about 150 of Baker's roughly 900 acres of farmland from sand deposits _ a few inches on some land, up to 6 feet on other parts. It took Baker two weeks just to clear the gravel road on his farm so he could get to his entire farm. Now, a year later, about 350 acres still aren't ready for planting.

"Sometimes you can work for 10 to 12 hours a day and not see that you've made any difference," Baker said. "I'm 62 years old, and I've never seen this much damage in my lifetime."

Baker estimates that fully clearing his land will be a two- or three-year project. He and his team began removing sand at the start of October and worked through the winter and spring.

"It's just kind of tough some days," Baker said. "You do what you've got to do to get the work done."

According to a November report completed by Scott Brown of the MU Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, about 207,200 acres of cropland were flooded in 24 Missouri counties in the summer 2011 disaster. About 50 percent of the damage occurred in Holt and Atchison counties.

According to that report, those Missouri counties lost a total of $175.9 million in crop revenue and $109.6 million after crop insurance proceeds and disaster payments.

Last year, 375 acres of Jeff Gaskill's land near Rushville, Mo., were flooded and 50 to 75 acres badly damaged by sand. Water that seeped under the levee that protects the main farm covered another 100 acres. He guesses he lost about a half-million dollars in crop revenue.

Cattails, a type of wetlands grass foreign to Gaskill's fields, have since sprouted on his land. This spring, he's had to work land four to five times more than he used to. And this past month, the sand deposits covering the farmland he rents along three miles of Missouri River were finally removed with bulldozers and haul trucks, in time to plant crops.

Sand as deep as 5 feet still covers 66 of the 1,100 acres that were flooded on Lanny Frakes' land last summer. It's too expensive to clear, and the land probably can't be farmed again, Frakes said.

He doesn't plan on touching it soon.

Instead, Frakes, the secretary/treasurer of the Rushville-Sugar Lake Levee Association, spent most of the past year working with the Army Corps of Engineers to repair the levee and applying for a community block grant to help pay for 20 percent of restoration costs. (The corps paid the rest.) Repairs were finished in March.

In the Army Corps of Engineers' Kansas City District, half of the 48 reported levee breaches have had contracts awarded to begin repairs.

Five of the levees have been restored to pre-flood conditions, said Robin Wankum of the corps' Kansas City District. She said the corps is hoping to have all projects in the area finished sometime in November.

But some farmers like Baker are footing the bill themselves because their levees are private, and they're proceeding cautiously until the levees around their land are fixed. Baker estimates that when he cleared his first 80 acres of sand-covered land, he shelled out $2,000 per acre. Finishing repairs on his levees is his top priority, he said.

Clearing sand is another cost for farmers.

The hardest-hit areas in Platte County were near Bean Lake. Don Boyer, executive director of Platte County's Farm Service Agency, said the county still has about 10 percent of its sand to clear. The agency has approved $500,000 for removing it, but the payments have yet to be made.

Farmers' "biggest concern right now is soil recovery and getting debris off their land so they can farm," said Beverly Maltsberger, an MU Extension community development specialist in Buchanan County. "They've been working at it frantically since the water went down in August."

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