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Farming in St. Louis County, Missouri

September 23, 2008
By: Guest Editor, Farm Journal
 
 

 

The following story was written by a University of Missouri student as part of the 2007 Sonja Hillgren/Farm Journal Ag Journalism Field Reporting Institute. Learn more.
 
By Kristina Sherry
 
A giant, nine-pronged, John Deere combine steadily plows its way through a cornfield on Warren Stemme's 1,100-acre farm in eastern Missouri. 
 
The wilting brown corn stalks look like flimsy scarecrows standing at attention against the dull afternoon sky. As they collapse beneath the John Deere, some of their ears become entangled in the front prongs, and they are carried onward with the haul of the corn. Others are left flattened in the combine's wake, coughing up a sooty dust cloud of dried corn bits and parched dirt.
 
It's mid-September, and the next four weeks will be the busiest time of year, with corn and soybeans – about 500 acres of each – readying for harvest. 
 
Stemme is a fourth-generation farmer on lands that his family has worked since 1869, lands he calls the "poster child farm" of St. Louis County, Mo.
 
As a former president of the Missouri Soybean Association, a St. Louis County Farm Bureau representative and producer of bioengineered crops, Stemme is frequently interviewed by publications like St. Louis Post-Dispatch and organizations seeking his farming know-how.
 
But another reason Stemme is the go-to farmer for the St. Louis County region is that he is one of the few remaining.
 
The agricultural lifestyle is disappearing from St. Louis County, where the Missouri River flood plains are host to a confluence of competing interests. Since the 1970s major residential and commercial developments have inhabited the county's flood plains and have overtaken farmlands like Stemme's, which once characterized the area. Levee enhancements in the aftermath of the '93 flood have likewise enhanced developers' confidence that the fertile regions are safe for productive, commercial use. Meanwhile farming – once thought to be the most likely and natural use of flood plains – has become a most unnatural one.  
 
Developing flood plains
Geologically the Missouri River system, like other rivers, consists of two components: the "flood way," which holds the water flowing between the two banks, and the "flood plains" beyond the banks, which capture water overflowing off the flood ways.
 
Flood plains are an auxiliary basin to accommodate the river's ups and downs, and an integral part of the natural river system.
 
But a collective forgetfulness exists that flood plains, as their name implies, are prone to flooding. Humans have long used the flat, fertile lands for productive purposes like farming – and more recently for residential and commercial developments. 
 
Dan Burkemper, executive director of the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, a St. Louis-based conservation organization, offers two major explanations for floodplain development.
 
First, flood plains are flat, open spaces requiring little clearing or preparation for building. Second, until recently tax increment financing, or TIF, and other tax incentives covered redevelopment costs, making the St. Louis region an even more attractive place to build.
 
"So on one hand you have low cost because the land is flat and wide open, and then you have even more incentive because you have tax subsidies," Burkemper said.
 
"And the prices make it out of reach for people to farm on it, which makes it financially impossible to keep as farmland."
 
Libby Malberg is the assistant city administrator for Community Services and Economic Development for the city of Chesterfield in west St. Louis County. Her job is to attract and retain businesses in the community, which isn't difficult, she said, considering Chesterfield's draws, which include an educated workforce, a hospital, two school districts and no property taxes for the city.
 
The reason agricultural land is disappearing, she said, is "just economics."
 
"It makes more sense for farmers to sell their land and invest in the future, rather than work for the lower return on their agricultural investment," Malberg said.
 
Levees as protection
Burkemper sees yet another invitation for developers: "Missouri state law doesn't really bar anyone from developing the flood plain," he said, which is apparent from St. Louis County's existing levee system.
 
A levee, also called a dike or a floodbank, is a miles-long stretch of piled-up earth that runs parallel to a river, forming a barrier between the flood way and the flood plain.
 
Levees may occur naturally. But often they are engineered artificially by piling earth onto a level surface to protect specific farmlands or developed areas from flooding.
 
But water must go somewhere, and unprotected flood plains become the most likely destination. This is incentive for nearby plains to construct bigger, better levees, in a sort of arms race against flooding.
 
This is also seen as a "vicious cycle" wherein levee-"protected" areas are presumed safe for further development, which increases the property's value, creating an even greater need for levee protection – and so on.
 
A flood plain's perceived safety is largely determined by its levee. An area given 1 percent chance of flooding any given year is said to be in the "100-year flood plain." Since the '93 flood, most levees in St. Louis County have been restored to a 500-year protection level.
 
Once a system of mega-levees exists along a stretch of the river, water flow is constricted – like a crowd going through a turnstile – and has nowhere to go but up.
 
As river volume increases, the levee system plays a game of structural "hot potato" to see which levee will break first – or which downstream areas will choke worst.
 
"You're displacing water when you build a levee or build something that keeps it from acting as a flood plain," Burkemper said. "You're causing the flood height to increase."
 
He notes that Illinois law only allows structures to displace water by up to one inch. Missouri state law allows water displacement up to one foot. 
 
Decline of farming
In 2002, the most recent year for which data are available, 16,800 acres of cropland were harvested in St. Louis County. This was less than the 21,675 acres reported for 1997 and the 26,684 acres reported in 1992.
 
In fact, productive acreage in St. Louis County peaked more than 70 years ago, when 102,502 acres of harvested cropland were reported in 1934. It has been declining ever since.
 
Missouri shows a similar trend. In 1934 the U.S. Census Bureau counted 280,000 farms in the state. In 2006 that number was 105,000 – less than half.
 
And as Missouri goes, so goes the nation. According to a 2003 article in Conservation Magazine, the United States loses more than a million acres of farmland to urban sprawl annually.
 
Gradual changes
Valerie Mertz and her husband, Denny, are friends with Stemme and own farmland in Elsberry, about an hour north of their home in west St. Louis County.
 
In the 1970s they rented small pieces of farmland closer to home, from more landlords than Valerie Mertz can remember. Since then all of that property has been sold and subdivided (except for one, which, she said, remains a convent).
 
Farming in St. Louis County has advantages, she said, including the ready-made markets that do not exist in more rural areas and the proximity of St. Louis's large grain elevators. St. Louis is also a major center of agribusiness, providing support for the agricultural industry.
 
But it has disadvantages, too, like having to be conscientious about farm equipment noise and children – tempted by farmers' long, gravelly driveways – who become oblivious trespassers.
 
Agriculture's challenges
Likewise, Stemme describes the work on his Maryland Heights farm as "more of a logistical nightmare than farmers in rural areas have." 
 
Moving heavy equipment, like his $200,000 John Deere combine, can't be done during rush hour. 
 
"If you move a large piece of equipment, it might take up three-fourths of the roadway," Stemme said.
 
He also notes the extra steps required to obtain farming equipment:
 
"We don't have anybody that supplies agricultural inputs in our county at all anymore," Stemme said. So large machinery, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and other agricultural essentials can't be obtained within St. Louis County. Even Stemme's CB20 biodiesel fuel for his farm equipment comes from outside the county.
 
Stemme rents 90 percent of his cropland. He does most of the bookkeeping and paperwork, and the arrangements with his about 20 landlords vary. Some agreements are "cash rent," wherein Stemme pays those landlords an annual fee per acre, and some are "share renting," wherein both Stemme and landlords receive a share of the crop. This requires Stemme not only to keep track of the total number of bushels harvested but also to record the quality and quantity of fertilizer used so that he can deduct this from the landlord's total share of the crop. 
 
And pesticides – anything used to control farm pests like bugs, weeds, fungi and other crop disease – involve further paperwork. Stemme must document where and when they are used, and the weather conditions.
 
Pesticides also require special handling in the midst of suburbia. A few years ago Stemme went to apply herbicide to crops adjoining a busy soccer field. Even though the soccer players were upwind of the crop area, and the herbicide was a "safe product," he hesitated.
 
"You have to be very wary and in tune with what's going on with neighboring properties," he said. Many people were on the soccer field, and "All I would have needed was somebody with a video camera saying I was harming them; so I postponed spraying that area."
 
Further, when "urban folks" see land, they think it's public property, with trucks unknowingly dumping onto the farmland, and people jogging on the levees, he said.
 
Neighbors' agricultural ignorance has been an ongoing nuisance.
 
The Stemme farm ceased raising livestock in the early 1990s – a decision at least partially inspired by "urbanite" neighbors who didn't understand agriculture. 

"They don't know what to do when cows get out," Stemme said. "People let their dogs run loose in the neighborhood, and dogs would come chase the cattle, and the cattle would run through the fences."
 
Fortunately none of the Stemme cattle were killed by traffic, but often they landed in neighbors' yards, creating a separate set of problems.
 
"Manure – let's put it that way," Stemme said. 
 
"And even though we tried to tell [the neighbors] that it was free, organic fertilizer they still didn't like that."
 
So when the last of the Stemmes's cattle died, row crops became the farm's main focus.
 
Until, of course, the Great Flood of ‘93.
 
Flood of ‘93
According to the National Weather Service, the Great Midwest Flood of 1993 was one of the worst in U.S. history. Heavy rains and flooding began in late May of that year and in some areas lasted until October. The event claimed 54 lives, left 54,000 people without homes, shut down 10 commercial airports and cost more than $4.2 billion in direct federal assistance. Total estimated damages ranged from $12 billion to $16 billion.
 
All but two levees in the St. Louis County system, the Riverport and Earth City levees, were breached or broken by mid-July. On July 30 an upstream portion of the Monarch Levee broke, flooding some 4,700 acres of Chesterfield Valley. At the flood's worst, a general aviation airport, several office and industrial parks and a five-mile stretch of I-64 under more than 10 feet of water.
 
The Monarch Levee had been assessed at a 100-year flood protection level, although the Army Corps of Engineers later determined the '93 flood to be of lower frequency than a 100-year flood.
 
Nearly two weeks earlier – shortly after midnight on July 17, 1993 – Stemme's father was at a pump station that channeled water from nearby creeks back into the river when he noticed that the river level suddenly dropped by about a half inch. 
 
About a mile upstream from where Stemme's father had been standing, the flooding river had broken the Howard Bend Levee. Water coursed into the flood plain, which explained the sudden drop in the river. Maryland Heights's fortress had failed, water streaming through holes that would eventually grow to become about five acres in size.
 
"Imagine a hole 2.5 times the size of a football field, and 35 feet deep," Stemme said. 
 
The mere half-inch drop in the river's level was a reminder that even 8,000 acres of flood plain – let alone a manmade levee – were small forces compared with the flooding, constricted Missouri River.
 
Which begs the question that Stemme asks: "What are you doing to everybody else when you raise your levees?"
 
After the flood
Flood recovery took nearly three years for the Stemme farm.
 
No buildings washed away in ‘93, but the shop-building floor was more than 10 feet deep in water, and several inches of silt covered the equipment. Out in the fields crops were buried under debris, standing water and in some areas several feet of sand.
 
Friends helped Stemme clean his shop building and to clear items like trees, barrels and propane tanks from his fields – accelerating what could have been a months-long process. The levee district needed material to fill a large hole elsewhere in the county, so it hired an excavating contractor to clear sand from the fields using earth-moving equipment.
 
Levee restoration and improvements took more than a decade, as Stemme and other property owners in the Howard Bend district made the unusual decision to tax themselves to upgrade to a 500-year flood protection level. Following a two-year certification process, the Federal Emergency Management Agency granted the new and improved Howard Bend Levee a "letter of map revision" affirming the levee's enhanced protection.
 
The 500-year protection will encourage 4,200 acres of development in Maryland Heights, like other communities that have developed in the wake of strengthened levees.
 
More than $50 million in public and private funds went toward upgrades to the Monarch Levee district, now home to the 1.9-million-square-foot Chesterfield Commons, billed as the "longest strip mall" in America, according to Malberg, the city's economic development administrator.
 
The Commons is a two-mile expanse of retail outlets – Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Red Lobster, Krispy Kreme and hundreds of others – along a stretch of I-64 that was once under more than 10 feet of water. According to the St. Louis Business Journal, consumers spend more than $300 million at the Commons each year.
 
Chesterfield is set to retire its TIF bonds in 2008 – about nine years ahead of schedule, according to Malberg.
 
"The Valley has grown faster than anticipated," she said.
 
Doug Aegerter, a St. Louis area realtor, points to research anticipating a 4 percent growth in the real estate market for next year; he has also observed that, unlike recent national trends, the St. Louis market is incredibly stable. Most of the property he sells is outside the flood plains, and while flooding is certainly a concern of lenders, it doesn't seem to be an "up front" concern of potential buyers.
 
"The only people really aware of what happened in '93 are the natives," Aegerter said.
 
"The flood of ‘93 is a distant memory, and unless one experienced [it]?firsthand, one would probably have forgotten the magnitude and areas?involved," he added.
 
Dan Burkemper of the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance is not surprised.
 
"Historically it's been shown that people have about a five-year memory of a major flood," Burkemper said.
 
"Out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes. So after five years people forget what the dangers are."
 
The future of St. Louis County farming
The Great Flood is not all that has escaped public memory.
 
As a schoolteacher in St. Louis County for the past 30 years, Valerie Mertz has seen the area's changes reflected in the composition of her students.
 
"Now most kids don't get out that much – unless their parents take them for a hike," Mertz said.
 
She has observed that her students "don't have any connection with farming, or what it takes to produce their food, or the tools that are necessary, or the love of the land or the physical labor that's involved.
 
"Sometimes when people are foreign to something they don't understand it. They don't understand the things a farm has to be allowed to do to operate," Mertz said.
 
"I don't know how to communicate to the kids that it's an honorable profession," she said.
 
Ray Sprock, 86, another friend of Stemme, has retired from farming.
 
In the 1960s and ‘70s he and his wife rented farmland along the Meramec River in southern St. Louis County. Since then the land has been parceled out for use as a state park, a golf course, part of a horse ranch and a sand and gravel operation.
 
"We just got crowded out," Sprock said.
 
"There is absolutely no farmland on the Meramec anymore, from the Mississippi to Eureka," Sprock said.
 
"It's economics – there's no question about it. There's no way that a landlord can hold onto the land in St. Louis County."
 
Sprock felt a great sense of pride in his farming career, and so did his wife, who passed away in 2006. He now lives with his two sons, and the three of them grow tomatoes, turnips, sweet banana peppers, jalapeno peppers, habanero peppers and other assorted vegetables on a one-acre garden plot near the home.
 
"That gives us something to do, and to make a little extra money," Sprock said.
 
Warren Stemme has two sons, ages 11 and 13, the only farm children among their classmates. He hopes to keep the farm until his sons have at least graduated from high school because he would like for them to learn the work ethic of farming.
 
"Even if they never farm, or do that type of work – as long as they learn how it's done," Stemme said.
 
This will require maintaining enough rented acreage for his crop operation to remain viable. Recently he lost 100 acres to a development project.
 
Howard Rutledge, a non-farmer who lives about three houses away from Stemme, also has been in the county long enough to see farmlands give way to development.       
 
He has known Stemme for a while and would consider him a local "celebrity."
 
"Nobody knows any farmers that live out here," Rutledge said.  "[Stemme's] probably one of just a handful. For one, the real estate values are quite high, so most large landowners have sold for development."
 
"Warren does well" with his diversified crops, and his wife has her own corporate career separate from the farm.
 
Stemme is happy "to continue the lifestyle he likes," Rutledge said.?       
 
"Warren is a farmer. That's what he likes doing."

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