A New Hope for the Battered Mississippi Delta

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From the tip of Illinois to New Orleans, the great river rose from its channel, slipped its shackles, and crept with relentless strength miles deep into the farmland and country towns of Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, leaving ruin in its wake. The Great Flood of 2011, as it will be known, was bigger than even the disastrous flood of 1983, which caused $15.7 million in losses to farmers and riverside industries, or even the massive flood of 1993 above Memphis, with 50,000 homes damaged or destroyed, 54,000 people evacuated and damages estimated at $15-$20 billion.

A century of manipulation, of dikes and dams, levees and weirs, has done little more than erode billions of tons of precious topsoil, create a sterile dead zone in the Gulf, and promote inappropriate development in the floodplains. But no amount of mechanical engineering or scrupulous equations can long cage a force as ancient and mighty as the Mississippi. In April and May, the river again showed its contempt for the artificial constraints that had been woven around it and burst its banks to strip over 3.6 million acres of farmland of topsoil, crops, and the financial security of thousands of farming families.

Mississippi alone suffered the loss of 600,000 acres of crops, with the streamflow at Vicksburg peaking at 2,340,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), exceeding the estimated peak streamflow of 2,278,000 cfs established by the legendary flood of 1927, which covered 27,000 square miles and killed 246 people in seven states.

There has perhaps never been a better time than now to actively consider alternatives to crops for land along the Delta, as scientists warn that these enormous flooding events will almost certainly increase in frequency and devastating power as the world’s temperatures continue to rise. Particularly for owners of marginal cropland that has proven itself vulnerable to flooding, the replacement of beans and corn with hardwood trees is looking like a wise investment in an uncertain future.

Ricky Lowery is a typical Delta farmer confronting the 21st century. He has farmed his property ten miles south of Yazoo City for most of his life, and in that time he has seen crop prices sink while planting, maintenance and harvesting costs rise. While this same story is being told across the country, those like Lowery who work the floodplains of the Mississippi face unique challenges, never so much in evidence as during the catastrophic flooding that took place this spring.

Lowery had decided that he’d had enough of the seasonal gamble on weather, river and the market that crop farming demands, and when he heard from his local Farm Services Agency of a program that pays landowners to convert crops to trees, he was curious. “A lot of the land around here should never have been cleared in the first place,” Lowery said. “It’s just too low and flood-prone. People went broke trying to get crops out of it.”

He met with a company called GreenTrees, which pays landowners to “interplant” a grid of fast-growing cottonwoods and sheltered hardwoods on former farmland, thus creating, in the hot and humid climate of the Delta, 15-foot cottonwoods and 4-foot hardwoods within a year of planting. Having also enrolled his newly planted acreage in the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Lowery could now sit back and watch his forest grow … and his revenues increase.

Forestation meshed with the goals of the Lowery family: to supplement their farming income with guaranteed payments derived from both CRP and GreenTrees; to slowly step away from dependence on the arduous and uncertain row crops that had been the farm’s staple; and to increase the amount of wildlife habitat on the property for hunting deer, turkey, and wild hogs. The dual streams of private and public income the Lowerys derive from forest conversion is “constant,” says Ricky, “like rent. Farming is always a big gamble, with lots of expensive equipment to maintain and chemicals to buy. A lot of people have learned the hard way that farming these floodplains was a mistake.

“Nobody around here, including myself, had ever heard of interplanting cottonwoods and hardwoods like this, but I didn’t loose a thing from this flood,” Lowery says, gesturing to his thriving young forest. “These hardwood saplings were underwater for 2-4 weeks but they’re green as can be now and the cottonwoods are leafing out, and the six months of drought that came before the flood didn’t hurt them either. Meanwhile my corn crop was uprooted by the river and ended up stuck in the tree branches.

“I was never a forester and I’m no tree-hugger, but the deforestation in the Delta has hurt the soil and the farmer both. With hardwood conversion I’m doing something to guarantee a steady income while providing habitat for wildlife and for my son and grandson to hunt in.”

Ricky Lowery basks in the sunlight that tickles the vibrant leaves of his maturing oak and cottonwood forest. “This is paradise,” he says, and now he has a new way to keep it in the family.