It’s a race against the clock for farmers in Atchafalaya River Basin of Louisiana as they prepare for the potential opening of the Morganza Spillway, which will flood farmland and destroy all of the crops in the water’s path.
Earlier today the Army Corps of Engineers opened the Bonne Carré spillway in southern Louisiana with hopes of relieving pressure off of New Orleans. Next it is considering opening the Morganza spillway which has not been opened since 1973. The Atchafalaya River is a distributary of the Mississippi and Red rivers and the hope is that releasing this water will lower water levels further up the river and possibly relieve flooding in areas like Memphis, Tenn., where the river is expected to crest this afternoon.
"There is no official word on when or if they are going to open it," says Avery Davidson of Louisiana Farm Bureau. "However, at the river’s crest, they are predicting it to be two feet higher than the structure, so it will flood the area regardless."
The basin is not entirely agricultural land, but there is some farming ground on its northern end.
"There’s about 1.5 million acres in the Atchafalaya Basin itself, the majority of that is bottom land hard woods, swamps, lakes and bayous," says Kyle McCann, Commodity Director for Louisiana Farm Bureau. "The northern end is where the Morganza Spillway is, and there is about 15,000 acres including pastures and row crops."
"We don’t know what to expect," says Ted Glaser, who farms in the spillway. "It has only been opened one time in 1973, we have no idea where the water will go."
Farmers in the area are working diligently to prepare for the rushing water. Due to the warm climate in southern Louisiana, corn is shoulder-high, soybeans are up and wheat is being harvested. One area wheat farmer is receiving help from all of his neighbors as they race to combine all his fields before the water comes.
"He will likely receive a discount for high moisture content," Glaser says. "But that will be better than losing the entire crop."
McCann said that farmers are hurrying and worrying because this situation is all too familiar.
"In 2008 we had a wonderful crop we were about to harvest, prices were high and then we had a hurricane come along and before we could harvest it, it was covered with water," McCann says.
That year most of the famers had contracted their crops to grain elevators and they struggled to meet contracts relying on excess yields from other farmland and McCann suspects this time is no different.
"I’m sure there are a lot of guys scratching their heads right now about how to meet their contracts," he says.
Many farmers have already begun preparing to lose the entire crop.
"I’ve got about 1,000 acres in the spillway and I am buying back contracts," Glaser says. "I don’t know if I’ve even got 50% of the crop hedged, about 2,000 bushels."
For many farmers, including Glaser, this season’s crop was perfect. A very dry spring allowed them to be among the few farmers across the country to plant according to schedule. Rain and weather were both in their favor, that is, until now.
"We got our crops in on time and it was a beautiful crop," Glaser says. "You try to control your variables, but now Mother Nature, you just can’t control that baby."
While they are faced with potential devastation but, for the most part, feel like it is worth it to save the lives of others.
"It’s bad for us, but think about those people who live along the river," Glaser says. "I don’t know how they go to sleep at night knowing that they could have water at their doorstep in the morning. But, it still hurts, we put our heart and soul into the crop and take pride in what you’re doing and grow it and see it taken away."
A Fluid Situation
According to McCann most of the farmers with land in the basin also have farms in other areas, however this could still manage to be devastating for them as crop insurance coverage is not a guarantee at this point.
Last week, Secretary Vilsack declared that all insurance covered land sustaining flood damage in Missouri would be covered by crop insurance because while the breaking of the level was an act of man, the reason for breaking it was natural. There is some concern among Louisiana farmers that thought process won’t apply to their situation.
"The Morganza structure is designed to let water out of the Mississippi. While it does hold water back during high water periods, it was designed to let water out," Davidson says. "There is an argument out there that they knew this was a possibility when they planted."
USDA’s Risk Management Association says as of now, there is not an official statement regarding insurance coverage of land in water’s wake. Secretary Vilsack is expected to issue a statement later today.