In Flood's Flotsam, Farmers Must Dig Sand

Federal aid helps restore fertility to farms in floodplain of Missouri River

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IN the bottom lands along the Missouri River, 450,000 acres of the state's most productive farmland have turned into desert. Farmers are fighting to reclaim their land nearly a year after the ``Great Flood of '93'' drowned crops worth $150 million.

Although the water receded long ago, it left behind a deposit of sand up to five feet deep in places. Several hundred acres of the Hilgedick family farm in Hartsburg, Mo., still look more like an oceanless beach than the fertile cropland it once was.

But with a steady resolve developed over years of farming, Wayne Hilgedick and his two sons are reaching down below the sand and dredging up the fertile soil buried underneath. They have hired a massive plow pulled by four Caterpillar tractors to mix the sterile sand with buried topsoil to restore the soil's fertility.

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Last summer, 14 feet of water stood on much of this 1,200-acre farm. When the levees broke, the force of the water created scour holes up to 70 feet deep and several acres across. As the water spread and began to slow down, it deposited sand and other debris on top of the rich soil.

``We weren't sure we would be able to farm this land at all this year,'' says Terry Hilgedick, while his tractor idles loudly in the field. ``It's a world of sand out here.''

But with the support of the United States Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS), the Hilgedicks are getting ready to plant several hundred acres of sunflowers on this land. Now that the corn and soybeans are in the ground in less damaged sections of the farm, they have turned their attention to the sand problem.

Expensive process

The family bought a bulldozer this year and is using it to level the plowed land. Doing this part of the work themselves saves $150 an acre, but it still costs $550 an acre for the big plow.

``It's an expensive process,'' says Richard Fenwick, a soil scientist with the University of Missouri Extension Service which provides free consulting for farmers battling sand deposits. ``But if you want to get back into production quickly, then plowing or scraping is the only way to do it.''

The ASCS, a division of the US Department of Agriculture, pays 64 percent of the cost to restore the land, up to $400 an acre. ``Without help from ASCS, there wouldn't be anybody plowing,'' Terry Hilgedick says.

As it is, several of the Hilgedicks' neighbors have abandoned their land to the sand this year. Orion Beckmeyer, who farms 900 acres here, will not be harvesting a crop for the second year in a row.

One of the reasons is that only about half of the levees along the Missouri River have been repaired by the Army Corps of Engineers.

``Farmers are very reluctant to make a major investment that might be damaged if we got another big flood before the levees are rebuilt,'' says Don Pfost, an agriculture engineer with the University of Missouri Extension Service.

The Hilgedicks decided to give sunflowers a try because the ASCS is providing subsidies that protect their investment in case of a flood. ``They try to help out and give the farmers an alternative,'' Mr. Fenwick says. ``It's not something the farmers would normally grow on their own. But sunflowers have less moisture requirements and can grow better in sandy soil.''

No one is sure how profitable sunflowers will turn out to be for farmers here. The closest sunflower oil processing plant is in Kansas.

``But many farmers don't want to risk a high value crop,'' Fenwick says. Sunflowers are a safer bet this time around. ``You have to be a gambler to be a farmer,'' Fenwick says.

Some farmers in flood-affected areas are already noticing crop deficiencies. Corn is turning purple or failing altogether. ``We don't know if it's due to the droughtiness of the soil or not,'' Fenwick says. Purpling is usually caused by a phosphorous deficiency, he says. But it will take more time and tests to pinpoint the problem.

`We'll see what works'

The Extension Service is setting up about 15 demonstration plots to come up with solutions for flood-affected farms in Missouri.

``We'll try different things and document what works and what doesn't,'' Fenwick says. After the last major flood in 1951, no one kept any records on what methods best restored the land, he says. ``So it's like starting all over again every time. We'll monitor these plots for the next four or five years. Next time it floods, maybe we'll have better advice for the farmers.''

Some of the demonstration plots will be left alone to recover naturally. Other methods to be tested include: deep plowing, scraping and hauling away the sand, irrigating, and adding organic matter such as sewage sludge.

No matter what, farmers can expect decreased yields for a while, Fenwick advises. ``It will show up in their crops for a few years,'' he says. ``But once they get the organic matter mixed back in, they'll be OK.''

The sand deposits may actually improve some land. ``It depends on what is underneath the sand,'' says Ross Braun of the USDA's Soil Conservation Service. ``Heavy clay soils can benefit from incorporating the sand.''

For Terry Hilgedick, the most important thing is to harvest a crop this year. He has heard talk about the government's proposals to move people out of the flood plains.

``But if you're farming the land for your livelihood, you can't exactly pick up and leave,'' he says. ``It really doesn't make any difference to me what they think. I'm not going anywhere.''

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