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Farmers feel burden of lingering uncertainty

RUSHVILLE, Mo. | When a flood this big hits farmers along the Missouri River, it’s more than just the land that can erode.

This one already has been unusual, more psychologically brutal.

Flooding isn’t new to the farmers in the lowlands along the river, but unlike floods in the past, farmers have known this deluge was coming for weeks. They hoped it wouldn’t, but it did.

“The mental unknowns that are out there when we were trying to save this levee and we lost it, it just consumes your life,” said Lanny Frakes, a local farmer who saw 1,100 acres go underwater when weeks of furious preparations failed to hold back the river.

And now the water might stay for months, burying livelihoods and making farmers perhaps the primary victims of the Flood of 2011.

“It will take years to get back to where you were with the land,” Frakes said.

The last great flood, in 1993, arrived more unexpectedly, fueled by incessant rains. And it drained more quickly than this one is likely to.

This year, high waters were fed by dam releases far to the north, and those will continue through August, making it likely that some fields could be underwater that long.

It’s too soon to know what the extent of the damage will be.

“We try to shy away from comparisons, although ultimately it may have the same impact as ’93, and in some places be even worse,” said Col. Anthony Hofmann, commander and district engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers.

In northwest Missouri, for instance, the river has already hit peaks surpassing those reached in 1993, defeating several agricultural levees.

Near Rushville, about an hour northwest of Kansas City, evacuated farm equipment now litters the bluffs against the river. The owners have scattered, their houses and barns standing like islands amid a vast lake of water that blankets some of the nation’s best farmland.

The amount of land underwater is changing and difficult to pin down.

But the flood is especially cruel this year because farmers were expecting a great crop of corn and soybeans.

“Everything was planted up here. We had beautiful prospects,” said Blake Hurst, a northwest Missouri farmer and president of the Missouri Farm Bureau. “It was one of the best-looking crops we’d ever had along the river, and now we’ll never have any chance to get it.”

The record releases from upstream dams will make the duration of this year’s flood “three times as bad” as 1993, Hurst said. That left thick layers of sand several feet deep on some farmland and scoured deep holes in the soil where the river raced through broken levees.

Farmers can’t even begin the long cleanup until the waters recede, Hurst said, and nobody knows when that will happen.

“If it was me, I’d get in the car and head to Colorado just so I couldn’t look at it every day, because there’s nothing you can do,” Hurst said. “You’re totally alienated from your farm, your land, your home, and all you can do is wait.”

That’s on top of the mental devastation of fighting — and failing — in a long fight atop the levees.

Many along the river have protected themselves with crop insurance, according to Ray Massey, an agricultural economist for the University of Missouri Extension office. But it won’t cover everything, and most farmers have already gone through most of their expenses seeding and spraying their land. For many, all that was left was the harvest. And given how late and how long this flood is expected to be, there’s little hope of replanting.

Massey also is worried that the stress is getting to some of the farmers downriver who are awaiting the rising waters and hampering preparations for the flood’s arrival — deciding what to move out, figuring out when to contact an insurance agent, remembering to turn off utilities.

“There’s a lot of decisions that they’re making right now, and a lot of anxiety that they’re facing, and they’re not thinking as clearly as they otherwise might be,” he said.

Farmers downriver of Kansas City, in places such as Levasy, where the flooding is not expected to be as bad, now wait to see how bad it could get.

Their flooded brethren upstream now have to wait until the waters recede and the full extent of the damage finally reveals itself. They can only guess at how much sand will be left behind.

Bob Baker in Weston is one of those farmers.

“I’m a little bit older than I was in ’93, and it’s a little harder to take anymore,” said Baker, 61.

He has already lost most of his farmland to the flood.

“The biggest thing was waiting for it to hit us. We’d been moving stuff for the last three weeks. Nothing you can do about it now but sit there.”

His equipment now is scattered all over western Missouri. It might be late fall before he can start restoring the land, and he said he’s getting by with support from friends and family.

“We try to laugh about a lot of stuff,” he said. “It makes things a little easier. If we can’t laugh about it — probably would go crazy, I guess.”

Jeff Gaskill, 61, another Rushville area farmer, has red, ruddy cheeks from too much time in the sun. On Wednesday, as he toured the last levee that protects most of his land, he pointed to a part where it didn’t: No sweet corn this year.

“When you look at that, that’s when it gets depressing,” he said. “I try to think about something else. Like — hey, the Fourth of July is this weekend.”

He’s a jovial guy, laughing after every time he says something bad, almost as a reflex, although he’s glad his father isn’t here to see this. He thinks he might lose half a million dollars in crops this year. The land giveth and it taketh away, and you have to be ready when it taketh away.

“It’s very good ground,” he said, giving a worldly shrug as he steered his truck along the levee that stood between his home and the Missouri River. “This is the risk you run.”

And there’s no insurance policy that can safeguard farmers from the permanent uncertainties of their way of life.

“No two floods are alike,” Frakes said.

He thought back to 1993, which drowned the area for a few weeks and which some officials believed had damaged a quarter of Missouri’s farmlands.

“The floods are always different,” Frakes said. “It changes the people, changes the land. Some people leave, some people come back — but those that come back, they aren’t the same.”

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