Agriculture commission hears from farmers at Charleston meeting

Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Soybeans pour into the transport truck Monday, Oct. 22, 2012 on Charles Hinkebein's farm near Blomeyer, Mo. The soybeans head straight to the SEMO Port Authority for distribution. "We've cut 40 (acres). That's how bad it's been," Hinkebein said of his overall 1100 acres of soybeans. According to the U.S.Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service across Missouri 50 percent of soybeans have been harvested which is six days behind last year. Of those harvested in Southeast Missouri 33 percent of soybeans were in fair condition, with 27 percent considered in good or excellent condition. (Laura Simon)

CHARLESTON, Mo. -- Members of Missouri's Interim Commission on Agriculture Innovation and Economic Recovery listened Tuesday as Mississippi County farmers described how homes, churches and crops washed away after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers intentionally breached the Birds Point levee last spring.

This was the second in a series of public hearings the commission is holding to assess the damage done to the state's agriculture industry by extreme weather and the ongoing sluggish economy.

The commission is comprised of six members of the House of Representatives, including Rep. Steve Hodges, D-East Prairie, and four citizens involved in the agriculture industry.

"Water is a tremendous concern. We've gone from feast to famine here," Hodges said.

Most of the commission members were unfamiliar with the details of last year's intentional levee breach and asked a number of questions about how it occurred and its ramifications.

Britton Ferrell, a Mississippi County farmer and sheriff's deputy, recalled having to tell people they had to evacuate when it appeared the corps was preparing to detonate the levee in an effort to reduce flooding pressures upstream.

"These were people I go to church with and I go to the coffee shop with who were going to lose their homes. I had to tell them to leave or they were going to be underwater. When I drove the levee the next morning, there were homes and churches and graveyards all underwater," he said.

Several Mississippi County farmers, some who serve on levee or drainage district boards, expressed distaste for the corps' processes and said they favored allowing the levee to overtop naturally rather than intentionally breaching it.

"They had a plan to blow the levee, but no plan to build it back," said Glenn Ault, of Consolidated Drainage District No. 1 of Mississippi County. Ault said it took Gov. Jay Nixon putting pressure on the corps by offering state money to local levee and drainage districts to help repair the levees on their own if the corps wouldn't.

"That was embarrassing to the corps. His bluff worked," Ault said.

In 2010, Ault's drainage district spent $1.5 million repairing damage from previous floods. Since last spring's flood, his district has spent more than $4 million on repairs, much of which was funded through the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

"Had they let it naturally overtop, our system would have handled it," Ault said.

Commission members said much of this is out of their control as a state body, but Ault and others asked the state to continue to put pressure on the corps to change the way it manages the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.

Mississippi County farmer John Moreton asked the commission to consider enacting a state law that would prohibit anyone from degrading levees with explosives.

"Then they might have to rethink their plan," Moreton said. Ault said federal laws would trump any state laws and questioned the effectiveness of such a measure.

In addition to last year's flood, farmers discussed this year's drought with commission members.

Southeast Missouri is fortunate because it has access to abundant groundwater, however the cost of pumping that water onto the fields increased dramatically this year because irrigation systems were used for months longer than normal, farmers said.

Fred Ferrell of Mid Valley Irrigation in Charleston, who served as Missouri Director of Agriculture in the early 2000s, said farmers started irrigating in March this year and continued until about 10 days ago. Typically, irrigation is only used from April through July, he said.

Fred Ferrell urged the commission to consider state incentives to help rural electric cooperatives to install more three-phase electric lines, which could be used to power irrigation pumps instead of diesel fuel.

"If there is anything I can say to you today that you have power over, that you can see happen, I think this is an issue that you can get on and help us," he said. "Irrigation is the life blood to this area."

Running irrigation using electricity costs a third of using diesel power units, Fred Ferrell said.

"Not only will it help agriculture, but upgrading lines will help the people who live here," he added.

Southeast Missouri's ability to irrigate has been an "economic mecca" during this summer's drought, Fred Ferrell said. Irrigation has helped increase yields to offset agriculture's rising costs for other inputs including seed and fertilizer.

"The name of the game is all about yields," Fred Ferrell said.

When combining soybeans this year, he harvested 30 bushels an acre on the corners of the field where the irrigation didn't reach, but 240 bushels an acre where the crop had access to water.

Commission member Lloyd Gunter of Gunter Farms, a dairy farmer who also serves on a rural electric co-op board, said the cost is very high for rural co-ops to run this type of line for a pump that only is in use for seven months out of the year.

"This is an economic development issue," Fred Ferrell said. "We're all going to pay for it through taxation, but everybody's going to benefit because of our increased yields, our jobs, the amount of taxes we are going to pay and maintaining a stable industry."

Fred Ferrell said he is concerned about drought conditions, which he used to see about once every 10 years but now are occurring more frequently.

"The reason this is imperative now is that the cost of agriculture has risen so much, we won't be able to pass this land on to the next generation because they can't just make 100-bushel corn anymore and stay in business," Fred Ferrell said.



Pertinent address:

Highway 105, Charleston, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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