University of Missouri professor Gene Stevens teaches in Columbia, but he’s based in Portageville, in the Bootheel.
When the Army Corps of Engineers blew a two-mile hole on the 35-mile-long Bird’s Point-New Madrid floodway to save several small towns along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. As a result, 134,000 acres of prime farmland was flooded.
Stevens says now that the floodwaters have receded, it’s time to restore the land, which he says isn’t just the most fertile in the state, or the nation, but globally. A result of a high water table, alluvial soil from the rivers, high nutrients and a soil density that holds water well, Stevens says, “The counties bordering the Mississippi and Missouri rivers account for almost 60 percent of the state’s corn and more than 52 percent of soybean production. Delta counties along the Mississippi River accounted for all of the state’s cotton and rice production.”
“People know Missouri is an agricultural state, but they don’t know how much is grown and sold from just two counties,” Stevens says.
Last year, Mississippi County produced 9,381,000 bushels of corn and 6,287,000 bushels of soybeans. New Madrid County produced 11,300,000 bushels of corn, 676,000 bushels of wheat, 140,000 bales of cotton and 1,535 hundredweight of rice, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service crop production data. These commodities are a critical element in helping the U.S. manage its trade gap, he says.
Stevens is calling on the Army Corps of Engineers to now repair the levee, before more damage is done, and then compensate the farmers who are trying to get their farms up and running again. He says at the north end of flood, the top soil was scoured from the land. Further down, there are 30-foot gorges, and deposits of sand — sandbars in the middle of fields in some cases — up to 8 feet deep. It’s a repair process he says will take several growing seasons.
According to previous agriculture reports, the land produces nearly $100 million annually of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice for domestic consumption and export.
Restoring the area is important for the region’s economy because it is heavily based on crop production, Stevens says. Most of the businesses in Mississippi and New Madrid counties are connected to agriculture, Stevens said. It is estimated that $75 million in damage was done to the area’s transportation and community infrastructure when the flooding occurred. Stevens said that rice fields along the river also are important food and habitat sources for winter migratory birds on the Mississippi Flyway.