This summer’s drought is proving to be both a blessing and a curse for farmers in the southeast corner of Missouri trying to recover from last year’s devastating flooding. The Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway saw nine feet of water crash on its fertile soil after the Army Corps of Engineers blew up its Mississippi River levee to relieve flooding elsewhere on the river.
While the fair skies are helping the Corps’ rebuilding efforts and giving farmers time to repair their land, the lack of rain is a particular problem when irrigation equipment lies in ruins.
That has floodway farmers like Wanda Wallace in trouble. On a recent tour of her farm, she veered her four-wheeler around her 1,300-acre farm, dipping and diving over levees and through fields, crossing over dirt roads.
“This was the best farm ground in the world right here,” Wallace said, pointing to what is now merely a field of sand, dry grass and little else. “We made 50 and 60 bushels of beans every year.
“(This year) 200 acres won’t even be even planted,” Wallace said.
An irrigation pivot lay on its side, submerged in sand and tangled with driftwood. A tire poked out of the sand, jutting into the air. The floodwaters ruined Wallace’s irrigation and damaged her wells. So in that respect, the drought couldn’t have come at a worse time. It left her with no way to grow and water a corn crop.
When the Army Corps of Engineers blew up the Birds Point levee, it destroyed Wanda and Milus Wallace’s farm and their floodway home. In total, 130,000 acres – roughly the size of Chicago – was underwater.
Their old home is gone now, but they are building new in the floodway. Milus Wallace is building their new cabin perched atop a 13-foot platform. He built the platform from materials he found in the flood, like steel beams from an old bridge. He’s even using the floodwater’s left-behind sand.
Standing on the platform, Milus said he plans to build a place to park his truck within four steps of the house.
“And then I hope to put a waterfall coming into the pond,” Milus said with a laugh, looking over the bayou that surrounds his home.
Some well-timed recent rain gave Wanda hope that they’ll have a decent soybean crop this year.
“You know, the farming’s in our blood,” Wanda said. “Getting the land and ditching and all of that, all the water wells back, is a lot more important to us than our houses. We just — that’s our livelihood.”
The Wallace family farm is small compared to Ed Marshall’s.
Marshall farms 8,000 acres in the floodway. Ever since the floodwaters receded, he’s been moving earth. He took sand out of drainage ditches to fill up scour holes. He leveled off hills of sediment. Since last summer, he has been putting dirt where it’s supposed to be.
“If it hadn’t been this dry, we would not be near this far,” Marshall said as he drove his truck along the levee.
On a hot, dry day with temperatures tickling 100 degrees, Marshall was just finishing up a year’s worth of work. A light breeze cooled things down, but created a whirlwind of dirt that dusts itself on everything.
Marshall rented bulldozers and heavy trucks to move the last loads of dirt where they belong. Since the flood, he has moved 5,000 loads of dirt. Finally, in early August, he moved the last load.
Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers continue to restore the Birds Point levee. The dry weather has helped speed up that process. The Corps now expects to finish the project by the end of the year.
“Will it produce as much? Possibly. I’m not going to say that it’s hurt the production,” Marshall said. “But it’s not back like it was. I’ve had to sacrifice not only the money, but you know, there’s still a lot of dirt that’s not here anymore. There was a ridge here that’s not anymore, because it washed right through there.”
Marshall expects mixed results this year. Of his 8,000 acres, he planted all but 300.
About half his corn and a third of his soybeans are irrigated, and he expects good things there. For his unirrigated crop, he’ll do something he never would have imaged last year: Pray for rain.