Farmers left with damaged soil after floods



By Deanna Martin

MARTINSVILLE, Ind. – Jim Lankford’s corn crops used to stretch to the White River. Now the river has stretched itself through his crops.

The river eroded a new route for itself during June’s flooding, a channel with steep 12-foot banks at the edge of some of Lankford’s corn fields about 30 miles southwest of Indianapolis.

The flood spread rocks in other spots, making it look as if Lankford planted soybeans in a gravel road. Elsewhere, silt is piled up like sand dunes and uprooted trees still litter cornfields more than a month after the floods.

“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen in my life for this area,” the 62-year-old farmer said.

The flooding that swamped large areas of the Midwest took with it some of the region’s most valuable resource: soil.

Now farmers and environmentalists are at odds over what to do with erosion-prone land. The floods may have caused up to $3 billion in crop losses in Iowa and $800 million in crop damage in Indiana, according to estimates from agriculture secretaries in those states. In Illinois, agricultural observers say flooding – both last month and during the spring – swamped hundreds of thousands of acres, though a truer picture about the flooding’s fallout there won’t emerge until the report on actual plantings and yields comes out in August.

Erosion damage is harder to tally.

In Wisconsin, flooding damaged about $2.8 million worth of conservation structures, such as dams, levees, ditches and waterways, said Don Baloun, a farm conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service in Madison, Wis.

Some land in Illinois remains submerged.

“It could be fall for some of our counties on the Mississippi River before we see what kind of damage farmers did experience as far as erosion,” said Donald King of Illinois’ USDA’s Farm Service Agency.

Erosion robs farmers of the nutrient-rich topsoil their growing plants need.

“It takes thousands of years to form one inch of topsoil,” said Jane Hardisty, Indiana’s state conservationist. “Within a day, we lost it. It’s just devastating.”

It’s also an issue downstream, where sediment diminishes water quality.

Scientists think the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico – oxygen-depleted water off the Texas-Louisiana coast that can’t support marine life – is likely to be worse this year partly because of the flood runoff.

States have set up programs to keep their soil. Missouri, for example, has nearly halved its rate of soil loss since the mid-1980s, when it dedicated a special tax that generates $42 million a year for soil-conserving practices such as terraces, retention ponds and grazing rotations.

Lankford, the Indiana farmer, faces a difficult decision for his flood-damaged land. But another big flood could come again next year, he said, or not for another hundred years.

“Traditionally, farmers are optimists, and I know I’m that way. They always think ‘Well, next year will be better,'” Lankford said. “You know there’s risks. Sometimes it’s worse than you think.”

Associated Press writers Jim Suhr and Cheryl Wittenauer in St. Louis, Robert Imrie in Wausau, Wis., and Amy Lorentzen in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.