This week's extensive flooding along the White and Wabash rivers in Indiana and Illinois will certainly cause a local shortfall in harvest. Exactly how much damage is yet to be calculated. Thousands of acres of planted corn and soybean fields have been swamped, and because of the lateness of the planting season, some farmers may not be able to replant fields when the water recedes.
Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and state Agriculture Department Director Andy Miller toured flood-stricken areas in the Hoosier state by helicopter Thursday and met with farmers representing 12 counties. "I hoped to find that the damage to the agricultural sector might be limited or might be recoverable. That is not my impression after (Thursday)," Daniels said. "It appears likely the damage is severe and will not be salvageable, in many cases, for the balance of this year."
"We have to wait for the water to recede to get into the field to determine the extent of the damage," Miller said. "I will be shocked in those affected counties if we are not talking 20 percent that is affected very severely.”
The timing of the flood was terrible for corn growers, he added, explaining the "magic date" to replant corn has been pushed back thanks to hybrids that have a shorter growing season. But even then, land likely will be too wet to replant corn.
Many farmers might try to switch to soybeans, which can be planted later than corn, but demand for seed beans will be extremely high. Others may plant a cover crop to limit erosion and try again next year, Miller said. Those out of business for the rest of the year likely would fall back on crop insurance.
Meanwhile, livestock farmers may not have lost any of their animals, but likely will see the prices of their feed corn escalate, Miller said.
Across the river in Southern Illinois, Carmi farmer Rusty Walsh watched the Wabash all week, hoping forecasters were wrong about the river climbing to near record levels from Mount Carmel to New Harmony. But Thursday morning, his fears were realized. "The river topped the levee in an area we call Sugar Tree, up to Phillipstown," Walsh said. "We've got 500 acres of some of the prettiest corn you've ever seen down there, and it's going under."
"What we've lost is time," Walsh said. "Corn is a huge deal. What's not been planted by now and what's lost to flooding will have to be replanted in beans. It's just too late for corn." The levee that was topped Thursday by the Wabash was a farmer's levee and is not maintained by the U.S. Corps of Engineers.
Wayne County farmer Bill Vaughan has been watching the Little Wabash in the Pond Creek bottoms southeast of Fairfield. By Thursday morning, the river was more than 10 feet above flood stage and still rising. "The other night when those big rains hit central Illinois, we thought they'd go far enough east to miss the Little Wabash watershed, but they didn't," Vaughan said. "We didn't have any big rains down here, but the Big Wabash is so full, the Little Wabash is backing up."
Thursday afternoon, water started spreading over thousands of acres of bottomland in southeastern Wayne County into parts of northern White County. "At 27 feet on the Little Wabash east of Fairfield, we'll lose a lot of ground," Vaughan said.
Flying over Indiana farmland Thursday revealed another troubling sign: debris littering farm fields. Floodwaters have strewn timber, propane tanks, railroad ties and even refrigerators across crops, and all that will have to be removed before tractors can move in, he said.
An official assessment of the amount of crop damage rests with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Miller said that federal Farm Service Agency field agents will be in affected counties, working with local farmers to calculate their damage. That will allow U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer to release emergency loans and other federal assistance, perhaps by next week.