A second year of flooding is threatening to ruin another year of crop harvests for farmers in the Mississippi River Delta, one of the poorest regions in the US.
With the coronavirus already ravaging the region, farmers are now facing a second year without profits.
The southern Mississippi Delta is home to some of the most fertile farmland in the United States.
But not a single crop of soybeans, cotton, corn, or rice has been planted at many farms in the region — one of the poorest in the country.
For the second year in a row, widespread flooding has left hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland underwater, ruining entire harvests. And now, with their fields submerged, farmers are bracing for another year of no income.
For farmers in the Delta, it’s a worst-case scenario playing out in real time.
“We had hopes that this year we would be able to get back to normal. Mother Nature had other plans,” Victoria Darden, a farmer in Onward, Mississippi, said.
The sight of submerged farmland has become depressingly routine since February of 2019, when heavy rains began swelling in the Mississippi River. The south Delta was hit especially hard — by May of that year, 548,000 acres were underwater, an area almost three times the size of New York City. The flooding caused 12 deaths and an estimated $20 billion in damages.
While the waters in some areas had receded by August, that wasn’t the case for Victoria Darden and her father Randy — as much as 80% of their L&R Farm were still underwater by May of this year.
“We’re still just sitting here hoping and praying that we are able to get the water out of here and able to get a crop in, but we really just don’t know,” Victoria Darden said.
Flooding damage has cost each affected household an average of $42,000 through the end of last December, according to economists at Mississippi State University. Those losses are not expected to be covered by insurance or assistance programs, and they have continued to mount this year.
In a typical year, Randy Darden told Business Insider Weekly, his farm would produce $600,000 worth of crops. This year, the Valley Park Elevator, who the Dardens use as a distributor, is warning farmers might see returns of pennies on the dollar for their yields.
“If we get a crop in, the prices are very low now. And cost of production, it doesn’t even pencil out to be a good break-even point,” manager David Wansley said.
And there’s much uncertainty even for farmers in the area who were able to plant. The current weak economy and low prices could leave crops to rot, and farmers with no profit at all. A similar scene is playing out throughout the country as farmers, including ones in Mississippi, are having to dump milk and smash eggs because of a decrease in demand.
“Corn’s lower than it’s been in decades. Same with soybeans and cotton,” said Mackenzie Parker, loan manager of the Bank of Anguilla, which serves the south Delta region. “So if we do get something planted, the concern is, you know, what are we going to get for it?”
The government has been slow to respond, leaving farmers to fend for themselves.
The last time the region experienced devastation so severe was what the Great Flood of 1927, which left 27,000 acres of land under 30 feet of water.
As a response, the federal government began work on the Yazoo Backwater Project, building an extensive network of levees, dams, and waterways to control future rains.
This time around, though, the levees and dams haven’t been enough to stop the backwater. And the last unfinished component of the Yazoo Backwater Project — the installation of flood-control pumps — was scrapped in 2008, forcing farmers like Darden to pump water off their property with whatever equipment they have on hand.
With her fields underwater, Victoria Darden has spent the past year advocating for flood-control pumps.
She traveled to Florida to present her case to the EPA, arguing that the flooding has killed hundreds of deer and other native species. After months, she helped convince local environmental and conservation groups to support the project.
The EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers are currently reconsidering the pumping stations, though if they’re approved, they could still take years to complete.
The coronavirus is adding to the Delta’s struggles.
Meanwhile, residents of the Delta are grappling with another crisis: the coronavirus. Mississippi is one of the biggest pandemic hotspots in the US, reporting more than 1,000 new cases of the virus each day for the past week. The outbreak is threatening the livelihoods of other workers in the region.
Even before the coronavirus forced businesses to close down, Tracy Harden, the owner of Chuck’s Dairy Bar in Rolling Fork, was already burning through her savings to stay open throughout the yearlong floods. Suddenly, her typical stream of customers evaporated.
“You’d have farmers coming in and picking up 20 lunches. And when that went down to one lunch a day instead of 20 a day, it really affects your bottom line,” she told Business Insider Weekly.
“I was talking with one the other day that told me, you know, if we don’t get to plant this year, this is it for us. There’s no coming back from this again. That’s heartbreaking,” she said. “For my little town, it just seems like one thing after another. We could really use a break.“
The uncertainty is weighing heavily on farmers
Things started looking up for Victoria and Randy in May, when they began to coax soybean plants out of a couple hundred acres that had dried out. And in June, much of the floodwaters finally receded. Now, most of their land is dry, and they have been able to plant all but 20% of their crops.
But the uncertainty of the past two years is weighing heavily on them.
“When it rains, we all still get very nervous,” Victoria Darden said. “It’s like flashbacks, because we still don’t have a solution to prevent this from happening. It can still happen. It could happen with this crop out here. It’s very possible.“
The Dardens still don’t know if the water caused any long-term damage to their soil. And they still fear for the future of their family farm.
“How do you go from having a job you do everyday for your whole life and suddenly you can’t do that? What do you do with your spare time? How do you get through the day?” Victoria Darden said.
“Before I had this whole thing figured out. It’s not figured out.“
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