Sunday, September 25, 2005

Katrina, The Mississippi River And The Risks Of The Coming Harvest

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Katrina, The Mississippi River
And The Risks Of The Coming Harvest

Verlyn Klinkenborg
NY Times
September 21, 2005

In 1953, a young documentary filmmaker named Charles Dee Sharp traveled down the Mississippi River, shooting still photographs for a film he never made.  One of Sharp's pictures - recently published by the Center for American  Places in a book called "The Mississippi River in 1953" - is a color shot of  rows of new red cornpickers awaiting shipment in Moline, Ill. Behind them the surface of the river looks like a sheet of mercury. Those cornpickers,  long since antiquated, could harvest only two rows of corn - in the cob - at  a time. They were scaled to much smaller farms and lower yields than you  find in the Midwest these days, where fields are now harvested by enormous  combines that shell the corn as they pick it.

Those old pickers - so bright and new in 1953 - are a visual reminder of the vital, complex connection between America's agricultural heartland and the Mississippi River. In a good year, like 2004, the Mississippi smoothly ferries some 60 percent of the corn and soybeans bound for export downriver to the Port of New Orleans. And in a year like 2005 - well, there has never been a year like 2005. There has been serious drought along the river's tributaries, the Missouri and the Ohio, and that has resulted in low water along the main stem of the river as well. Industrial traffic has been slowed
considerably, and portions of the Ohio have been temporarily closed.

And then came Katrina, which essentially disabled the Lower Mississippi for shipping, halting the southward movement of grain for export and other farm products and the northward movement of farm inputs like fertilizer and fuel. Last week, the Coast Guard began lifting some restrictions on navigation on the Mississippi well above New Orleans. But navigation aids have been torn out of the river further south, and power has not yet been fully restored to the grain-handling facilities along the river.

What this means for farmers is yet another year of crisis, and possibly one of the worst in a long time. In an ordinary year, a drop in corn production - like the 12 percent slump forecast for Illinois this year - would mean better prices in commodity markets, but a real loss on the farm. But farmers in the Midwest, where the harvest is just beginning, are going to be looking at an unexpected glut of grain with nowhere to go.

Each week some 35 million bushels of export corn moves through New Orleans. That has come to a complete stop. Americans tend to think of farmers as producers, but they are also enormous consumers of fuel and petroleum-based chemicals. They will be paying much higher prices for those products, like the rest of us, for some time to come.

This fall is going to see a big drop in farm revenue and a big increase in farm expenses, at a time when the federal government is trying hard to curb farmers' appetite for subsidies. Once again, any movement toward limiting federal price supports will be overwhelmed by emergency funds needed to cover losses.

Katrina has reminded all of us, all too vividly, that the Mississippi is a complex chain of dams, locks, cutoffs, ports, channels, levees and navigational markers, rather than a natural river. And when the river system comes to a halt, compromising the well-being of every farm or business that lies economically upstream of the actual water itself, the only real concern must be to get the system going again. Yet the system is so complex that it is easy to lose sight of the hidden hydraulic system of the river itself.

We tend to think of the Mississippi as breadth and depth and flow, the qualities that float those long chains of grain barges downriver. Sometimes - only rarely - the surface traffic stops. But the river never does, and it carries with it, especially in spring, the outwash of all those fields along all those tributaries.

The traffic in grain is carefully regulated and monitored. The traffic in topsoil and all the chemicals that have been applied to it on Midwestern farms is not. The result is an oxygen-deficient dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. This year that zone, which can grow to the size of New Jersey, began to appear in March instead of June. There has been some speculation that Katrina's turbulence may have stirred the gulf enough to help break up the dead zone. But in the long run it will make no difference. Beneath the surface economy of the Mississippi River, there is an agricultural economy that is steadily eating away at those same farm fields and steadily killing the gulf.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company


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