Farmers' Prospects Soggy As They Prepare to Plant

Everyone is pointing fingers over breached levees not yet repaired

MID-APRIL is usually corn-planting time. But in the again-damp Midwest, many farmers are reluctant or unable to plant because of last summer's flood, a once-in-500-years catastrophe.

Early, endless rain last year made much Midwestern bottom land unworkable, says Jim Cole, a grain analyst with the United States Department of Agriculture. Only 73.3 million acres of corn were planted in 1993, down 6 million from the previous year, when farmers harvested a record 9.5 billion bushels.

Overflowing rivers wiped out 10 million planted acres last year. Lower yields on the remaining land limited the crop to 6.3 billion bushels of corn, well below average. The USDA says farmers' intentions on planting shift considerably. Their most recent gauge predicts that farmers will plant 79 million acres. Here are some of the things corn growers must consider:

* Last year's torrent left some fields littered with tree stumps or mounds of sand 8 feet high. ``How do you get rid of that?'' asks Dave Drennan, field services director for the National Corn Growers Association in St. Louis.

* The fertility of otherwise undamaged land is questionable after sitting underwater for three months. Nobody knows how productive that land is going to be, Mr. Drennan says.

* Hundreds of levees breached by the flood waters have yet to be repaired, leaving farms vulnerable to even an ordinary rise in water. The Mississippi River is now rising because of recent rains of up to 12 inches in some areas. ``If the flooding gets ahead of us, in some cases we may just have to walk away,'' comments George Hanley, a spokesman for the US Army Corps of Engineers in Kansas City, Mo.

The corps is responsible for 500 levees in a nine-state area on the upper Mississippi river. Of those, 163 still need repair. Another 1,500 that are not the corp's responsibility are believed to need significant work, a corps spokesman says.

Repairs are nearly complete in the Howard Bend Levee District near St. Louis. But district president John Pellet says he is not happy that five months of paper-shuffling preceded the earth-moving. He blames the delay on the multitude of regulatory agencies involved. ``Each of them have their archaeologist, their biologist, their ecologist,'' he says.

Ryland Utlaut, whose farm near Kansas City is protected by levees in two districts, blames the corps for giving farmers ``too many hoops to jump through'' in the form of ``questions, regulations, compliances, studies.''

``They're telling us now that the dirt won't be in place until June,'' Mr. Utlaut says.

Mr. Hanley, however, says levee districts have been slow to buy land needed for levee repairs and to contribute their 20 percent of the cost of repair. ``If they can't do it, nothing happens,'' he says.

Hanley says his office, responsible for levees from Nebraska to Illinois, has received 152 applications for repairs. Of those, one-third have been repaired, another third are ineligible for corps assistance, and the rest are eligible but await local participation.

He also accuses levee districts of ``holding out'' to get the most federal assistance. Given the vulnerability of farmers' fields to rising water, Hanely likens this tactic to playing Russian roulette with the weather. Utlaut denies that. ``If you make your living off that land, you want your levee fixed,'' he says.

Melvin Fick, president of the Monarch Chesterfield Levee District near St. Louis, says farmers in some districts have delayed repairs because they would rather be bought out by the government.

In December the federal Soil Conservation Service spent $15 million to buy 25,000 acres - a little over half of the land offered - for its Emergency Wetlands Reserve Program. The service began a second solicitation this month, but has not determined how much it will spend on the program, says SCS spokeswoman Diana Morris.

Other farmers feel they have no choice but to plant this year. Kenny Stock, a lifelong farmer who has never drawn a paycheck, expected to earn $200,000 last year from corn and beans planted on 600 acres on the south bank of the Missouri river near Kansas City. ``It all went under,'' says Mr. Stock, who has cultivated the plot since 1951. ``To cover that kind of loss, you really depend on another crop.''

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