USDA official tours Birds Point, talks to farmers

Sunday, May 22, 2011
U.S. Department of Agriculture Acting Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Michael Scuse, left, discusses the impact of the Birds Point levee breach on area farmland Friday, May 20, 2011. Scuse was on a two-day tour of flood damage in several states along the Mississippi River. (Melissa Miller)
U.S. Department of Agriculture officials view the site of the first breach of the Birds Point Levee in Mississippi County Friday, May 20, 2011. (Melissa Miller)

CHARLESTON, Mo. -- A top official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture toured damage to Mississippi County farmland Friday as part of a two-day trip up the flooded Mississippi River.

Standing at the edge of a small cliff where on May 2 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers intentionally breached the Birds Point levee, Michael Scuse, acting undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, saw acres and acres of farmland still underwater.

"You can't really appreciate it until you see it firsthand," Scuse said.

Scuse said he will give an account of what he's seen to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack upon returning to Washington, D.C.

"The secretary felt it was important that some of us come and actually see what has taken place along the Mississippi River and talk with farmers affected to let them know we will do what we can within USDA's means to help," Scuse said.

The Corps of Engineers breached the levee May 2, diverting the bloated Mississippi River across 130,000 acres of farmland and damaged or destroyed as many as 100 homes, to relieve pressure on the river's flood-control system.

Since then, the corps has also opened the Bonnet Carre and Morganza spillways in Louisiana to protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans from the river.

The day before his visit to Mississippi County, Scuse had visited the Morganza spillway and flew over areas of Mississippi flooded by backwaters.

Friday afternoon, Scuse met with about 50 farmers with land flooded as a result of the levee breach to talk about USDA assistance programs.

"With commodity prices where they are today, these farmers had a chance to be able to pay off debts, buy new equipment and put some money in the bank this year," Scuse said. "Growers were coming into this season with so much optimism, then to have this happen is devastating."

About 200 applications have been filed for the USDA Farm Service Agency's Emergency Conservation Program, which provides emergency funding and technical assistance for farmers to rehabilitate farmland damaged by natural disasters, said Dicky Jordan of the Mississippi County USDA Farm Service Agency office. About the same number of reports of prevented planting and failed acreage have been received.

Farmers are growing impatient with the Corps of Engineers and want the levee repaired to stop water that continues to come in.

Scuse said he would take that message back to Washington with him.

Vilsack did send a letter last week to the corps urging them to repair the levee "as soon as possible," Scuse said.

Some farmers said they were willing to help make repairs themselves if the corps would allow it.

Several farmers said they haven't gotten the reimbursements they expected from their crop insurance.

While crop insurance is sold by private companies, it is regulated by the USDA's Risk Management Agency.

Duke Presson, who had 300 acres of wheat growing in the spillway before the levee breach, said his crop insurance agent told him he would receive 35 percent of what he lost.

"I had a 100 percent wipeout, but they're not going to pay me for a 100 percent wipeout," he said.

Presson estimates he lost $40,000 on his wheat crop this year. Although it was sold on a contract, the grain processor is allowing him to roll the contract over to the 2012 season. He said other companies are requiring farmers to buy out their grain contracts.

Some farmers haven't been able to have their insurance claims evaluated because an insurance inspector has to visit the site and many farms are still under several feet of water.

Scuse said he would see if it was possible to waive the on-site inspection requirement in areas that were still underwater.

mmiller@semissourian.com

388-3646

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Charleston, MO

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