“We don’t give up” — Facing floods, excess rain and a trade war, Missouri farmers plow forward
Andy Clay had an eerie feeling coming into this spring.
This past winter, federal officials began telling farmers to expect high water on the Missouri River, which runs adjacent to the rich bottomland that Clay and his family have been farming for seven generations — before Missouri was even a state.
Sure enough, by May the water was quickly rising along the Cooper County levee that protects his land from high water. Soon, Clay and other bottomland farmers were evacuating their equipment and pulling out water pumps and irrigation motors just in case there was a breach. Then the sandbagging began.
Despite their efforts, the levee failed in late May, drowning the young crops. Clay’s next visit to his fields was by boat, where he discovered that the levee broke right next to rented land he was farming.
“I actually just rented it this year, which ended up being a horrible business decision,” he said in late July as he stood near the broken levee.
The rented field was still more of a lake, with a small island at the center where geese were foraging the newly-dried ground.
Clay said the flood was devastating for his family’s farm business, which employs 11 people. Roughly 2,400 of the farm’s 4,000 acres went underwater.
Farmers all across Missouri faced similar struggles.
Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst said hundreds of thousands of acres of Missouri farmland went underwater this spring as the Missouri River and its tributaries rose to historic — and in some places record — heights. Farms far from the flood were feeling the pain as well during Missouri’s abnormally wet spring.
“It is more widespread than just the flood because nearly everybody in the state planted later than they would like,” Hurst said. “Corn and soybeans both start losing yield potential pretty quickly as you get into late spring and early summer. So a great deal of the ground in Missouri that got planted will see less yields than we had hoped for because of late planting.”
Hurst said this year was the latest spring planting he could remember. Getting the seed in the ground late leaves much of the state’s crops at risk should fall come early or with colder than normal temperatures.
“We’re all very vulnerable to an early frost,” Hurst said. “So if the crops are not quite mature when it freezes this fall, then they’ll either be ruined or badly damaged.”
Gary Wheeler, executive director of the Missouri Soybean Association, said Missouri farmers have taken a variety of tactics to respond to the adverse weather.
“Every farm is different, and we see farmers taking a wide range of approaches on meeting these challenges — from tightening their belts on input costs, changing their crop plan, or putting in a cover crop that protects the soil but doesn’t do much for the bottom line, to embracing the risk of planting late,” he said. “In many cases, farmers do a combination of all of those and then some, spreading out that risk through diversification.
“None of the options are good in a year like this.”
However, the flood and this year’s late planting aren’t the only concerns facing the agriculture community. Farmers are also contending with lower prices — and long-term market worries — because of the ongoing trade war.
In response to recent tariff actions taken by the United States, China and other countries have targeted agricultural products for tariffs.
Wheeler said the Chinese tariffs are a big concern as China had been the destination for nearly one out of every three rows of the nation’s annual soy production. He said prices dropped roughly $2 per bushel during the summer of 2018 and have crept downward as the trade challenges have continued.
“It’s financially devastating when your number one market closes its doors,” Wheeler said. “Damage to export markets is not easily reversed. Farmers have invested in developing international markets and the relationships that go with those business opportunities for decades. Bringing those markets back is going to be a long-term process.”
It’s clear crop prices have been dropping, but Hurst said it’s difficult to determine what part of that drop has been driven by the trade war. He estimated that it contributed to a 10 percent to a 20 percent drop in prices.
“Of course, that marginal price is where our profits are,” Hurst said. “So it’s changed us from maybe making a little money to not making any money at all. That’s what’s happened.”
Despite the price pain being felt today, Hurst said most farmers support the government’s tariff actions as a way to bring more fairness to the trade relationship. He said farmers are willing to be patient as long as the process leads to a good outcome.
“How long does that patience last? I don’t know.” Hurst said. “But right now, I would say yes, they see it as necessary, and they’re hanging in there.”
Back on the Clay family farm, Andy Clay said he has noticed the effects of the tariff battle.
“Obviously, the trade war is playing a huge role in agriculture,” he said. “Not only is it making our equipment more expensive to try to purchase, but our corn and soybeans are not worth what they should be.”
That said, the most immediate concern was what to do this summer as the flood waters receded. As the ground began to dry in late July, Clay and many other flooded-out farmers made the decision to replant their fields. If nothing else, the crops will provide needed cover for the soil.
But if the weather cooperates, there’s still a chance the first freeze could come late, giving the crops enough time to mature for harvest.
“To be planting soybeans on July 22, I must say I’ve never done that before,” Clay said. “Obviously, the odds of that paying off is not very great. But as a farmer, you have to try. I mean, we just don’t give up.”