Weathering the Storm: Farmers Face Floods, Other Challenges
When severe weather strikes – be it flooding, tornadoes or even drought – the vast majority of Americans don’t have to worry that it will affect their jobs or cause them to take a pay cut. But for farmers, weather is critical in determining if a farm operation involving row crops has a successful year – or is a complete loss. (See also: Farmer Recounts Good Friday Tornado)
“A farmer can do all the customary practices such as utilizing fertilizers, planting the right variety at the right plant population per acre, controlling weeds and insects, and applying fungicides to control crop diseases, but most years the most limiting factor associated with a successful crop and good crop yields is water,” says Timothy Campbell, director of the University of Tennessee Extension for Dyer County. “From the time farmers place a seed in the ground, they rely on their faith that weather will provide adequate rainfall for producing a normal crop. If Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, they can come up short for the year.”
Farmers also hope Mother Nature won’t be too generous with rainfall, which has been the case in recent years for West Tennessee producers.
“Flooding can affect their bottom line by delaying planting, which affects the overall yield potential of a crop,” Campbell says. “If they have already planted and it floods and they lose that crop, they have lost their investment in seed costs, fuel and time in preparation for and the actual planting of the crop. Generally farm profit margins are very low, and when you take into account the investments in equipment, buildings, houses, seed, chemicals and fertilizer, any devastating event such as flooding can have a tremendous impact on the revenue-generating potential of a farming operation.”
Jeremiah Hollingsworth of Dyer County knows all too well how weather can destroy hopes for a profitable year. On April 11, 2011, he and his wife Tevvy Hollingsworth returned home from Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in Nashville with their recovering newborn daughter Scarlett, who had been born without a heartbeat after delivery complications. Days later, their 3,900-acre farm was hit by a 500-year flood.
“We deal with floodwaters on a yearly basis, but the magnitude of this one was far worse than we had ever seen,” says Hollingsworth, who raises corn, cotton and soybeans with his father Jerry, uncle George and cousin Luke. “When we found out the levee was not going to hold, we were under mandatory evacuation. We watched the river reports constantly, and they were right on the money.”
His family prepared as best they could by packing up their equipment and belongings from six houses and two sheds on the farm with the help of several volunteers.
“We are very grateful for our community,” Hollingsworth says. “We had 60 people helping us one day.”
Five days after the Hollingsworths evacuated, their entire farm was under water from the Mississippi River. The 15 miles of levee that normally protected their land had 24 breaks in it. Members of the Dyer County Levee and Drainage Board made the difficult decision to breach the levee, flooding farmland in an effort to save homes. Some of those making the decision did so knowing their own land would be under water as a result.
“If they hadn’t breached the levee, the whole thing probably would have been destroyed,” Campbell says.
Floodwaters remained up for six weeks, preventing farmers from planting, depositing sand in their fields and creating big holes in the soil.
“We’re still working on getting things back the way they were,” Hollingsworth says. “Nobody wants to lose a house to a flood, but in a farming community, it tends to be even worse. Our community and about 10 miles around us were inside that levee system, and around 20 houses were evacuated.”
Two of the Hollingsworths’ six houses were completely lost. Two houses have been repaired, and the family hasn’t decided what to do with the remaining two homes, both badly damaged. One of the houses they repaired belongs to Jeremiah’s grandmother, Marie Hollingsworth.
“We took all the sheetrock and flooring out and rewired her house,” Jeremiah says. “She didn’t have flood insurance because her house had been paid for for forever. She told us the only time she had ever been run out by floodwaters was back in 1937.”
The Corps of Engineers will bear some of the cost of repairing the levee, but slow-moving federal funding has prompted some farmers to repair parts of the levee at their own expense.
“These farmers are hoping to be reimbursed later, but they are trying to get ready for this year’s crop, so they can’t wait,” Campbell explains.
The May 2010 flood that damaged much of downtown Nashville and the Opryland area was hard on Dyer County as well, but not nearly as much as the one in April 2011.
“The Cumberland River winds all the way over to the Tennessee and Ohio rivers, and by the time it came down the Mississippi, we had time to get the water off us,” Hollingsworth says, adding that he’s very thankful the two floods didn’t happen in the same year.
It’s easy to see why farmers often have a love-hate relationship with rain.
“It is stressful because you want rainfall, but 99 percent of the time it’s not the perfect amount,” Hollingsworth says. “My dad says if it wasn’t a gamble, it wouldn’t be farming.”
As a backup for bad farming years, Hollingsworth sells crop insurance.
“It’s been a tough year. Some days I’m on the tractor and on the phone at the same time,” he says. “There are hardships all the time, but I love the freedom of farming. And I love getting my hands in the dirt.”
Fortunately, farmers tend to be an optimistic bunch. Hollingsworth’s daughter Scarlett celebrated her first birthday in March and is growing normally, learning to walk and “getting into everything.” Meanwhile, he’s hoping his 6-year-old son John will take up farming one day, following a longstanding family tradition.
“I think that’s every parent’s wish if they are involved in agriculture,” Hollingsworth says. “I’ve got him showing cattle already. I’m hoping farming keeps him occupied and out of trouble when he’s old enough to get into it. It sure did for me.”