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Heavy, continuous rains put strain on Missouri farmers

Flooded fields, an inability to plant, and the possibility of disease are all concerns Missouri farmers have due to recent rains.
Sonya Green | Flickr
Flooded fields, an inability to plant, and the possibility of disease are all concerns Missouri farmers have due to recent rains.

Missouri's farmers are facing significant challenges as heavy rains from Tropical Storm Bill compound an already wet planting season.

Recent U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show that more than half of the 5.7 million acres where Missouri farmers had hoped to grow soybeans this year are still unplanted because of recent rains.

According to the USDA state statistician for Missouri, Bob Garino, 42 percent of the state's soybean acres have been planted so far this season, which he says is about half of what farmers would typically have done. Garino said that represents the lowest level since 1995 and puts Missouri far behind other Midwestern states.

Moreover, Garino estimates that during one four-week period, farmers only had five days of good planting because of the wet ground. 

"In order for a farmer to get his machinery in the field, the ground has to be dry enough to support the machinery. You just can't go in when it's all muddy," he said. "That's been the problem for the last five weeks. You get a couple days that it might be dry, but it doesn't dry the ground out enough to actually get in the field. We need a good week of sunshine would be nice to dry everything out."

Garino said farmers can plant quickly once the ground dries, but they will likely face a shorter growing season and thus yield a smaller crop. But if the rain continues that will threaten soybean crops from Missouri, and he said that has many farmers frustrated.

That includes Denny Mertz of Chesterfield, the owner of the 450-acre Mertz Farms in Ellsberry, in Lincoln County. He said while his corn is planted, he didn't get a chance to start on his soybeans before the rains hit  — and hasn't been out in his fields since May 3.

"Typically you’re supposed to plant your soybeans in early May and you hope to be finished by early June," he said. "Obviously here we’re starting awful late toward the end of June and it is approaching a time that even if you plant your soybeans, now you might not be able to end up with a crop."

Mertz said if the ground doesn't dry up soon for planting, he risks losing two-thirds of his income. While Garino said there are programs to help farmers get funds to make up for crops they couldn't plant, Mertz said he's opted not to participate in those kinds of insurance programs.

Nevertheless, he said his operation will survive a potential loss because he has budgeted for bad years like this — something he knows other farmers might not be able to do.

Even smaller farms are concerned about the recent deluge of rain. North City Farmers' Market reports the rain has delayed planting in its 13th Street Garden that provides for the market, and that some other farmers that supply the market have reported they can't harvest due to mud.

Kris Larson, horticulture instructor at City Seeds Urban Farm, said clients and volunteers haven't been able to work in the fields due to rain.

"Unlike most farms, however, farms like City Seeds and other community gardens utilize raised beds for production, which has the benefit of excellent drainage in the event of excess rain," he wrote in an email. "Raised beds are essential in the city due to the need to avoid any possible contaminants in the soil left from previous uses of vacant lots, but the benefits are numerous, including the ability to withstand above-average rains like this."

Even though New Roots Urban Farm in the St. Louis Place neighborhood of St. Louis — which is one-third of an acre — uses raised beds, farmer Mary Desmore has other concerns, such as mold, mildew and rot.

"This type of weather is like a breeding ground for pests and diseases, so I'm really worried about the moisture," she said. "Water spreads disease pretty easily."

New Roots also has lost sales from canceled markets due to rain. Densmore said it also hasn't been able to harvest some crops for its CSA deliveries due to the rain.

"This is the time when our black raspberries are coming in and they are doing wonderfully, but berries are kind of one of those things that you have to harvest them when they are dry, because if you harvest when they are wet they don’t really keep. They just kind of turn into mush," she said.

Still, the rain is good for other New Roots crops, Densmore said, such as romaine lettuce.

Corn farmers also may have less to worry about. Garino said corn is typically planted earlier in the season than soybeans and got off to a "fairly good start in the planting process before the rain hit really hard." 

But Mertz said the rain is also threatening crops already in the ground due to flooding. 

"Depending upon how fast that water drops, even the crop that they had planted, which was up and growing well, may be destroyed as well," he said.

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This report contains information gathered with the help of our Public Insight Network. To learn more about the network and how you can become a source, please click here.