Flooding Mississippi, Illinois rivers worry farmers

Click image to view slideshow
While most levees have held, this farmland in Calhoun County, Illinois, was submerged by the flooding Mississippi River. (Courtesy Calhoun County Farm Bureau)
While most levees have held, this farmland in Calhoun County, Illinois, was submerged by the flooding Mississippi River. (Courtesy Calhoun County Farm Bureau)

Pike County in Illinois is literally a land between two rivers. On the east side, the county is bounded by 30 miles of Illinois riverbank and on the west side there’s an even longer stretch along the Mississippi River across from the state of Missouri.

Twenty years ago, Mississippi River flooding washed out farmland and a few homes in Pike County. This year, despite record flooding on the Illinois River and high water on the Mississippi, there hasn’t been a major problem holding the rivers back…yet.   

The recent heavy rains in western Illinois and eastern Missouri farm country brought back memories of the disastrous 1993 floods, but so far most levees have held and farms have largely been protected from the Illinois and Mississippi. Still, some Missouri areas reported flooding in late April and the rains and flooding resulted in Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn declaring nearly half the counties in the state disaster areas. Plus, farmers are still affected even when the rivers don’t breach the earthen walls designed to protect communities and land.

Living in Pike County gives Blake Roderick a good vantage point of what’s happening when there is high water. He’s the Director of the Farm Bureau office that represents Pike and neighboring Scott County and has been driving to all of the flood hotspots in his area for the past couple of days, keeping an eye on the levees and talking with some nervous farmers.

“During high flood events there is a lot of water seeping through the levees and the pumps can’t keep up, so water builds up on farm ground,” Roderick said. “When you drive by and see water in a field it’s because the pumps cant’ keep up or its seep water from the river.”

Wet ground has delayed planting across the Midwest. The latest numbers from the USDA show Iowa with two percent of the corn planted and major corn states Illinois and Indiana at one percent. On average, a third of the crop is usually in the ground at this time.

In western Illinois, most people have geared up to plant corn. They already plowed the field and in some cases applied nitrogen fertilizer, which means they are pretty much locked into corn this season. Most farmers had planned to have their crop in the ground by now and many have itchy planting fingers.

“We’re still fine, as far as getting corn in the ground,” Roderick said. “During normal years, mid-April to mid-May is prime time for planting corn.”

But if the soggy conditions continue for much longer and farmers continue to delay planting, the crop could be hurt by searing summer heat. If they have yet to treat the fields, some farmers might be able to keep their options open and switch to soybeans, if the ground stays wet for too long.

Farmers along the flooded areas will need even more time for their ground to dry out. That could easily be a couple weeks for those in in the river valleys.

Flooding also costs farmers in time. Many of the levees were set up specifically to protect the fields and it’s often the farmers themselves who are trying to keep the rivers at bay, patrolling the levees to make sure the increasingly saturated mounds are holding firm.

“Those farmers who are out working on the levees, a lot of them are drainage commissioners, a lot of them are relatives of people who own land in the area and most of the folks filling sandbags are other farmers or volunteers coming out of communities that depend on the farmers,” Roderick said. “These flood fights tend to be a community effort.”

And for that piece of land between the two rivers, the Mississippi is receding at a good clip, but the Illinois is expected to remain at high levels at least through the first full week of May.

What A Difference A Year Makes

Flooded farmland in Calhoun County, Illinois. (Courtesy Calhoun County Farm Bureau)

Dry in April 2012 (top), this stretch of Calhoun County farmland was flooded by an overflowing Mississippi River in April 2013. (Courtesy Calhoun County Farm Bureau)

Extra Images: