Midwest Flooding Raises Costs of Staple Crops
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
ARI SHAPIRO, host:
And I'm Ari Shapiro. Yet another crest of the Mississippi River is set to roll through some Missouri towns today. River levels in Missouri and Illinois surged over the weekend higher than expected. Thousands of acres of farmland remain under water and crop damage is widely expected to push food costs even higher. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.
CARRIE KAHN: In St. Charles, Missouri, about 25 miles north of St. Louis, the weather is perfect for boating. When the sun is out like it was this weekend a couple hundred boaters hit the water. But with the river well above flood stage it's State Water Patrolman Lou Amagetti's(ph) job to keep everyone out.
Patrolman LOU AMAGETTI (St. Charles, Missouri): Where you guys coming from?
Oh, OK. Where's that at?
KAHN: Amagetti pulls over Larry Slavic and some friends who were motoring up the river to check on their houses.
Mr. LARRY SLAVIC (Resident, Missouri): We think we're going to skate by this time, yeah.
KAHN: Slavic says the water is about a foot from his front door. He says back in 1993 he just remodeled before that flood destroyed his home. This time he recently finished laying new tiles in the kitchen.
Mr. SLAVIC: Now this one's coming, so, you know, we're going to quit remodeling now, you know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SLAVIC: It brings on the high water.
KAHN: Homeowners all along the Mississippi are assessing damage from recent flooding that's affected farmland in five states so far. Luckily, the flood waters didn't make it to Jim Brown's 2,500 acre corn farm in western Iowa. But after weeks of relentless rain a lot of his crops are stunted.
Mr. JIM BROWN (Farmer, Iowa): Crops can hold their breath but not for very long, about three days. And if the water's not gone it's going to die.
(Soundbite of engine starting)
KAHN: In a break in the weather, Jim Brown got in a bit of herbicide spraying. Sitting high in the tractor bed you can see black patches where the corn is dead. But Brown says a lot of his crop might be just fine, especially the rows planted on hills where the water drained off quickly.
Mr. BROWN: If our crop is cut by even 10 bushel at the price of corn it is today it's, you know, that's a lot of lost opportunity.
KAHN: Lost opportunity, but not a total loss. Brown still has corn to sell, and with record prices farmers outside the flooded Midwest may be poised to profit. Iowa state agricultural economist David Swenson says even if estimates hold up and 10 percent of the state's corn crop is lost, that would amount only to a one percent cut in the nation's crop. While he doesn't dispute that supply is tight and prices should've risen, he questions whether speculative trading contributed to last week's record high of eight dollars a bushel.
MR. DAVID SWENSON (Economist): That's a very strong reaction. It's the kind of reaction that we've seen in the oil industry. If you stand back and look at it. it seems to be based on a lot of uncertainty.
KAHN: Commodity traders in Chicago adamantly deny charges of speculation and insist the price spikes are reasonable, especially with strong worldwide demand and U.S. ethanol mandates. In hopes of increasing the corn supply and lowering those prices, Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley has proposed letting farmers plant on land set aside for conservation. And the Iowa Farm Bureau has asked that federally preserved acreage be opened for livestock grazing. But conservationists like Richard Wiles of the Environmental Working Group labeled those proposals as shortsighted and compared them to calls for offshore oil drilling.
Mr. RICHARD WILES (Environmental Working Group): It looks like the same approach is being advocated here. Let's open up the most sensitive lands to corn production. Neither one of those is going to provide any short term relief at the pump or in terms of energy independence.
KAHN: It could take months before the total impact of the flooding of crop land is assessed, especially since the river has yet to show its final fury.
(Soundbite of beeping)
KAHN: Yesterday, a dump truck spilled fresh sand in front of a crew of Missouri Air Guardsmen struggling to shore up a levee protecting Ag fields north of St. Louis.
Unidentified Man: All right. Go ahead and team up in pairs of twos - one shoveler, one bagger. Please tie good knots. Let's go ahead and get started. Thanks.
KAHN: Hopefully the guardsmen's sandbagging will protect the cropland as everyone braces for another surge today. Just how much damage this water has done to agriculture will become more apparent next week when the government releases its revised crop loss estimates.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News, St. Louis.