Agriculture

With the rain went the crops, but with the floods went the future

Aerial views of the widespread flooding in south-central Kansas

Drone video of floodwaters in Sumner, Cowley and Butler counties. (May 8, 2019)
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Drone video of floodwaters in Sumner, Cowley and Butler counties. (May 8, 2019)

While yields of some of Kansas’ most prominent crops remains uncertain because of delayed planting, there are other concerns blowing in for some Kansas farmers in flooded regions. Some farmers could feel the effects for years to come.

Rich Felts, president of the Kansas Farm Bureau and farmer in southeast Kansas, is one of many farmers who had crops wiped out by flooding this growing season.

When he planted corn, he said he felt like he was in pretty “good shape,” but mother nature had other plans. When a creek nearby flooded, half of his crop washed away. But that is not the only thing Felts said he is concerned about.

Loss of crops this year means lost income, but the floods washed away more than corn and soybeans. The floods quite literally washed away the soil. Well, the parts that matter.

“We have got a tremendous amount of erosion that crossed these fields,” Felts said.

When it comes to agriculture, the top six inches of soil are the most important, Jeff Seiler, extension agent for Sedgwick County, said. The top soil is where vital ingredients of phosphorus and potassium mix with decayed organic matter to make nature’s fertilizer.

“Some of those nutrients are just washed off,” Seiler said.

Soil stripped of those nutrients and decades worth of organic material decay is “not going to be very productive,” Ron Graber, Sedgwick County extension’s watershed specialist, said.

And the process of soil restoration, though possible, doesn’t just happen overnight, Graber said. Soil structure takes hundreds of thousands of years to develop.

“Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” Seiler said. “You can’t just come back in and buy some at the store.”

Preventing erosion is possible in theory, Graber said, but in seasons like this one, there is not much that can be done to slow the process.

“In a lot of places there isn’t (anything you can do),” Graber said. “There’s just not a lot of ways to deal with 20 inches of rain in a month’s time.”

Another concern, Seiler said, is already eroded soil is more vulnerable to further erosion down the line because the top soil is also a barrier. Eroded soil is likely to form femoral gullies, or ravines worn into the ground by water, Graber said.

“Not only have you lost your soil structure,” Graber said, “but now you’ve got gullies to repair.”

Femoral gullies — about two feet wide and not more than six inches deep — are simple to deal with. Classic gullies, on the other hand, are difficult to repair and make work difficult because they are hard to drive over. In areas of erosion concentration, gullies can start to look like streams.

All of this, put together with piling up debris and lost crops, can culminate in financially crippling situations.

“The economic impacts could be lasting for several years easily,” Graber said.

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