Midwest Flooding Takes Its Toll On Prairie Farm Towns in Kansas

THE damage the flood of '93 has done to farmers in Solomon, Kan., can be seen in the fields surrounding this prairie town and in the faces of some its 1,350 residents.

Mile after mile of dark brown, unharvested wheat - the most important crop in this area - stands uncut in soil so saturated with moisture from rain and flooding that tractors cannot be driven across it. Some residents of this town, founded in the 1860s, just shake their heads and say little when "the water" is brought up.

"This is wheat country and we've lost 80 percent of our crop. Nobody wants to say they're going to quit, but there are a lot of guys out there who couldn't afford crop insurance and now they just can't make it," said John Dautel, a clerk at the Solomon Kansas Farmer's Cooperative, which serves about 100 family farms in the area.

Solomon's past and current problems are a reflection of rural Kansas as a whole. Mr. Dautel estimated that 25 to 30 percent of local family farms have gone bankrupt in the last decade and predicted that with the flood more would follow. Statewide, the United States Census Bureau shows that the farm population fell by 37.5 percent from 1980 to 1990. (Two farm families cope, Page 2.)

This year, 3.2 million acres of Kansas farmland have been flooded by torrents of rain. Sixty-two of 105 countries have been declared disaster areas.

"We've lost 40 percent of the wheat crop statewide," Kansas Gov. Joan Finney (D), said in a telephone interview.

"Agriculture was in serious trouble to begin with, and the flood is going to cause even more problems for the family farmer," she predicted.

Ron Wood and his father, Harvey, run a diversified 4,000-acre family farm near Solomon. "We lost at least 60 percent of our crops. We were lucky because we had some high ground," he said.

Mr. Wood estimated his family's loses at a minimum of $200,000. Crop insurance and federal disaster aid should only cover about half of their losses. The real crisis, according to Wood, will come in October.

"If we don't get hot, dry days in August and the ground is too wet for us to get a crop planted in the fall," Wood said, pausing for a moment, "it would be very detrimental to our future."

Farmland in the Solomon area has been flooded four times since May. In many fields, small, shallow ponds have formed. On July 21, the town's main street and 15 homes went underwater for a week.

The Smoky Hill, Solomon, and Saline Rivers converge within eight miles of the town. "This time of year the Solomon River is usually 20 yards wide and a foot and a half deep. It's now about three miles wide," John Dautel, the clerk at the co-op, estimated.

"Local businesses will suffer more than farmers. There will be some disaster aid for us, but there's nothing for the business they will lose from us," Ron Wood warned.

Jim Talley, owner of Sunnyside Hardware, the town's only hardware store, agreed. "When things tighten up, farmers tighten up. The flood is going to affect me for the rest of the year," he said.

"It definitely hurts us all," Solomon Mayor Lynn Rhodes said in an interview in his garage. "I ran a fertilizer equipment repair shop here in town until 1991. I had 12 people working for me, but the farm economy got so bad I had to get out," he said.

Mayor Rhodes said the town has seen a gift shop, a beauty shop, and a laundromat close in the last six years, but tax revenues and population levels have remained stable.

"People find a way to get by," he said, pointing out Solomon Electric, which employs over a hundred people refurbishing transformers.

Rhodes runs an auto and tractor repair shop out of his garage. "This town's not dieting," he said, "we've got a lot going for us and we're going to hold our own."

Rhodes may be right. But co-op clerk Dautel predicted that more farmers will end up like him, working a full-time job and farming on the weekends with their families.

"There are a lot of guys who face losing the family farm," he said. "They'll be forced to work two jobs just to hang onto their land and hope that someday they can get back to it."

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