Story and Photos by Eric J. Shelton | July 17, 2019

Billy Whitten sits in the shop of his farm in Valley Park checking his smartphone for updates on the levels of the Mississippi River with a look of concern on his face. His eyes gazed at the screen with his eyebrows raised as he thought about the loss of this year’s crops due to the flooding of his 1,440 acres of farmland.

“The only thing that we are looking forward to is just survival,” Whitten said. Survival is likely the best outcome at this point, with the hope of being able to farm his land in 2020. “This year has been written off as a lost cause.”

Whitten has lived in Valley Park, located about 30 minutes north of Vicksburg, his entire life. His father started the farm when he moved his family to Valley Park in 1952. Whitten and his brother took over the family farm when their father died in 1978, and he has been farming ever since. After his brother left the business, his son stepped in to help. Today, Whitten’s fields are completely bare.

“It’s common practice that when we harvest our crops in the fall, we start preparing the ground for the following year.” But this year, as soon as he harvested his crops, it started raining and he and other farmers were unable to prepare their land.

Whitten said he will not have any income this year. His crop insurance will pay for the rented land and a few small expenses. “We still have a lot of expenses whether we have a crop or not,” Whitten said. “So, it’s going to be hard to make it this year.”

About 220,000 acres of farmland have been flooded in the Mississippi Delta, disrupting the lives and livelihoods of many farmers. According to Peter Nimrod, chief engineer for the Mississippi Levee Board, the area isn’t expected to drop below flood stage until August. He expects that the backwater will be gone by September. As of now, nearly 550,000 acres – including the more than 200,000 acres are farmland – are still underwater.

Currently, the Mississippi River near Vicksburg is at 49.1 feet and is expected to drop to 38.6 in early August. The flood is currently at 97.4 feet above sea level and is expected to drop to 88 feet. But this all depends on weather conditions.

According to the National Weather Service, the lower backwater regions recently experienced 2-to-3 inches of rain from Hurricane Barry. The Steele Bayou Structure and the Little Sunflower Control Structure – sets of gates that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closes when the Mississippi River rises above the water level inside the structures – are now open, which will help drain the backwater.

“It could’ve been a lot worse, but we were lucky due to the small amount of rainfall in the area,” said Marty Pope of the National Weather Service. The Mississippi River at Vicksburg will fall about 2 feet over the next five to six days, which will allow water to leave Steele Bayou area a little faster, he said.

Flooding in Mississippi: In many parts of the state, water is at historic levels but solutions are elusive

Whitten hopes that the highly debated Yazoo Pumps, an unfinished project by the Corps, could be the solution to future flooding. Debate over the pumps has been ongoing for the past 80 years. 

Opponents argue that the pumps could potentially drain thousands of vital areas at wetlands that support habitats of wildlife. 

Billy Whitten Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

‘It ain’t a good time to be a farmer, I’ll tell you that’

In Tchula, located in the southern region of the Delta in Holmes County, some higher elevation areas have been able to hold on to their crops. Other areas were not as fortunate. At some locations, you can see the devastating contrast. One side has several acres of healthy corn, but next to those promising crops is a barren land that resembles a Nevada desert.  

Farmland near Tchula that shows the healthy crops juxtaposed to a barren field that was destroyed by the heavy rainfall and flooding. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

“It ain’t a good time to be a farmer, I’ll tell you that,” said Calvin Head, a local farmer and member of the Milestone Cooperative. “The prices fell because of the tariffs,” Head said. “This makes if tougher on farmers who are already struggling.”

Calvin Head , farmer and member of the Milestone Collective, talks about the hardships that farmers are facing due to the flooding in the Delta. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Tchula farmer Roy Lee Brown has experienced the penury conditions since the record amount of rainfall inundated the south Delta area. 

“It’s been raining since last year last year, and it hasn’t stopped raining since,” Brown said. 

 “The later we plant, the less the yield will be. In most seasons that aren’t offset by extreme weather conditions, farmers usually yield about 60 bushels to an acre with soybeans.”

This season, Brown did not produce nearly enough crops to sustain his family farm. “It’s hard to get financed when you have a low yield,” Brown said.

Brown’s family has been farming since coming to the Milestone community, located in Tchula, in the 1950s. According to Brown, there were nearly 40 black farmers in the area. When his family arrived, they farmed 40 acres. Today Brown farms over 850 acres. His family is one of the last farms in the area. 

In order to maintain his livelihood Brown works three jobs, including his farming business. He works for the Canadian National Railway, and he owns a truck that he uses to haul grain. “Its rough to use those two other jobs to help keep our family farm,” Brown said.  

Roy Lee Brown  Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

It’s hard for Brown to fathom what he sees as a lack of support for those with thousands of acres of land and small-time farmers, such as himself. “Farmers mean everything to the world,” Brown said.” “We were hoping that the president would help because if you lose farmers, that means that you lose food and clothes.”

Not only are some Tchula farmers dealing with hardships caused by flooding, but they also have to navigate the town’s entrenched poverty. In a 2015 article, The Guardian called the Holmes County town the poorest town in the state

Brown says farmers now must deal with the low cost of soybeans due to the tariffs imposed on American farmers by China. “When you have to sell your crop at $8 a bushel, but you are used to getting $15 to $16, it hurts the business tremendously,” Brown said. 

Meanwhile, Delta farmers wait for the waters to recede and hope for a better tomorrow.

Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Roy Lee Brown ties his shoes before heading out the door to do some farm work before going to his second with the Canadian National Railway. Brown works with the railway and he hauls grains to help pay for his farming equipment and to keep his family farm. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Roy Lee Brown works on his farm before heading to his job with the Canadian National Railway. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Roy Lee Brown works around his farm before rushing to his job with the Canadian National Railway. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Roy Lee Brown leaves his house to go to his job with Canadian National Railway. Some days, Brown works nearly 18 hours to make income for his family farm in Tchula. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

An old tracker on display in Tchula. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

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Eric J. Shelton was a 2018 corps member in Report for America, and joined the team as our first photojournalist. A native of Columbia, Miss., Eric earned his bachelor’s in photojournalism from the University of Southern Mississippi. He was a multimedia journalist for Abilene Reporter-News, chief photographer for the Hattiesburg American and photo editor for the Killeen Daily Herald before joining our team June 2018. He rejoined Mississippi Today as our health photojournalist in January 2022.