For Flood Weary Farmers, a New Way to Stay on the Land

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Roy McCallie was born in Stuttgart during the great Mississippi flood of 1927.  His parents were forced to find a safer area when their hometown of Arkansas City was facing inundation, and it’s a good thing they did: the town was completely destroyed and lay submerged beneath the combined waters of the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers from April through August. The Red Cross admirably cared for all 1,500 townspeople while Arkansas City was rebuilt from the sodden ground up. “They had to move out everything down to the toothpick,” Roy says of his parents.

The Great Flood of 1927, which covered 36 of Arkansas’ 75 counties with muddy water up to 30 feet deep in places, displaced over 350,000 people, killed nearly 100, and flooded over 2,000,000 acres. The event was at the time one of the worst natural disasters in US history. People thought they’d seen the worst, but it happened again just ten years later, and with depressing regularity afterward until cumulating in the gigantic flood of this spring, which cost Arkansas half a billion dollars worth of lost crops. For many farmers living along the great river, this latest disaster, coming at the heels of an unusually regular series of high water levels, was the signal to consider a major change in how they profited from their flood-prone land.

“The river’s been up five years in a row now,” says Ray McCallie, Roy’s brother and co-owner of the family farm outside Arkansas City. “Two years is strange enough, but five is really unusual.” The McCallie brothers have spent their entire lives along the Mississippi, and know its ebb and flow as deeply as anyone. Three years ago, in the face of rising water levels and increasingly uncertain about the survival of their corn and bean crops, the McCallies planted 190 of their most vulnerable acres in a patterned mix of cottonwood and native hardwood trees and enrolled their infant forest in the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

The McCallie brothers both farmed, as did their sons, then they began renting the land out to others until they grew tired of the flooded crops and damaged equipment that was occurring with increasing frequency. “We’ve had floods two of the last three years,” Ray says. “We’re farmers around here, not foresters, but you just can’t count on crops anymore. Our neighbors say the same thing: farming here has dropped in cash and yield both.”

Ray states that farmers along this fertile stretch of the riverbank were largely devoted to the traditional row crops and he sees himself and his brother as exceptions, but their unique status as tree-growers may be changing. Farming is always a gamble, dependent on unknowable variables such as rainfall, storms, pests, and, especially, flooding. The $500 million in destroyed crops resulting from this latest flood demands a reconsideration of what’s best for farmers and their land in this fragile environment. Trees stabilize riverbanks, provide habitat for the 60% of migrating birds that follow the Mississippi flyway, retain precious topsoil, and prevent tons of carbon from contributing to rising temperatures.

The money’s not bad, either. When the cottonwoods have done their job of protecting the growing hardwoods they can be harvested for pulp or biofuel, and the hothouse climate of the Mississippi alluvial valley promotes rapid vegetative growth: cottonwoods typically reach 25 feet in their first year. A reforestation company called GreenTrees provides steady income to landowners who retain their sustainable hardwood forest to maximize its carbon retention and wildlife habitat qualities, after which it may be selectively cut. CRP is a highly popular program that delivers regular payments for farmers providing habitat and carbon sequestration … which their families can hunt on or lease to others.

“Income was certainly a consideration, but hunting and keeping the family close by were the main reasons for (the crop-to-forest conversion),” says Roy. The hardwood species selected by GreenTrees when mature provide nutritive mast for deer, turkey, quail, bear and other game.

The McCallies’ saplings were planned and paid for by GreenTrees in a unique checkerboard “interplanting” regime that allows fast-growing cottonwoods, in growing demand for the biofuels industry, to shelter young hardwoods from competition for nutrients and sunlight until they can form an effective canopy. Both groups of trees were chosen in part for their resilience in the face of periodic flooding. “Those trees were underwater at least once every year, and they’re all fine. The cottonwoods are thick as hair on a dog’s back.”

“The grandkids had trouble imagining that we could have income from just letting trees grow,” says Roy, “but here we are. We want this farm to stay in the family, and now we’ve got reliable income and a hunting preserve that will help keep the kids here on the land.”