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Farmers Facing Worst Disaster In Half Century

May 11, 1991

BONITA, La. (AP) _ It’s the height of the cotton planting season, but instead of being in the fields, Duke Shackleford spends his days talking with fellow farmers whose fertile land is under water.

Farmers across flood-stricken northeastern Louisiana are facing possible financial disaster that will trickle down to the economies of their agriculture-based parishes.

Shackleford said farmers have been reduced to the point of just hoping to throw a crop together that will enable them to pay their bills and break even.

″It’s like a country man once said: ’I don’t want any cheese. I just want out of the trap,‴ he said.

At least 275,000 acres of Morehouse Parish farmland has been under water since heavy rain in April backed up bayous and the Ouachita River. In less than 24 hours in late April, the area received more than 11 inches of rain.

″This is the worst shape our country has been in since 1927,″ Shackleford said.

He said his family farming operation, which is based on cotton and peanuts, will survive. But smaller operators have their backs to the wall, he said.

″The people who are well financed can recover in a year or two,″ Shackleford said. ″But if a farmer is borderline, he’s not going to be able to do it again.″

The agricultural extension service at Louisiana State University recommended that farmers wait no later than May 15 to plant cotton. A later planting will translate into lower yields, more problems with insects and the chance of an early frost catching the crop.

Farmland also has been flooded in neighboring southern Arkansas and northern Mississippi, and water has intruded into thousands of homes in the three states. According to the Red Cross, 8,952 homes in 22 Louisiana parishes have been hit by high water.

Downstream from Bonita, crews worked Saturday to fix part of the Ouachita River levee south of Monroe that began leaking for the second time in three days Friday. The levee was in no danger of breaking, officials said.

Heavy rain also has taken a toll on southeastern Louisiana, where floods hit Ascension, St. James and St. Mary parishes. Although the water has begun to recede in those parishes, workers carrying sandbags struggled to keep ahead of rising water along streams in Assumption and Lafourche parishes.

Shackleford’s son, John, said that even though the crop has not been planted, farmers already have an extensive investment. The Shacklefords have spent about $100 an acre for land preparation, fertilizer and chemicals. In addition, some farmers are required to pay their land rent before starting work, another major expense that may not be recouped, he said.

John Shackleford said cotton farmers still have hope, unlike rice farmers.

″Their crops already had been planted and it’s been under water for two weeks,″ he said. ″It can stand three or four days, but two weeks, forget it.″

Rice farmer James Kiper said crop insurance probably will save him from a disastrous year. But not all rice farmers carry such coverage. John Shackleford said cotton farmers almost never carry insurance because of the high cost of that crop. Besides, crop insurance only pays if the seed has been planted.

Kiper said the flood already is hurting the area’s overall economy.

″That little store isn’t getting my money because I’m not burning gasoline. My help’s not spending any money because I’m not paying them any,″ he said.

Shackleford said his cotton gin employs about 30 people at the height of the processing season. But there are questions whether there will be much cotton at all to gin this year, he said.

″What do we do with the people who work for us?″ he asked.

Jack Churchwell, who manages a heavy farm equipment dealership in nearby Mer Rouge, said he already has laid off eight of his 31 employees and more cutbacks are expected. The large garage that is usually busy with maintenance work on $140,000 cotton pickers, $120,000 combines and $60,000 tractors had only a whisper of activity.

″That is as empty as that shop’s been in five years,″ Churchwell said.

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