Fighting to Stay Afloat

By CATHRYN CARTWRIGHT,

Farming has been a way of life for the residents of Holly Bluff for over a century.  A lifestyle where families pass on their rich heritage and values with each new generation. 

This year Smith Stoner, the next generation of Stoner Farms, should be celebrating his family's 100th harvest season, a dream he has had since taking over the family farming business.  Now that dream currently seems more like a nightmare because of the Yazoo Backwater Flood.

"The actual flooding itself started back in February of this year," Stoner said. "By March we started having land go underwater."

Stoner said that on March 8 they relocated his grandmother, Betty Ann Stoner, out of her home and built levees to keep her home safe before the flood came.  His parents, Joe and Delaine Stoner, watched as the water rose, creeping up into their yard day after day as the backwater flood continued.

"My mom and dad are still in their home but it is surrounded by water," Stoner said.

He added that he and his wife, Morgan, live nearby on Highway 16, and while their home is not being affected by the floodwaters, they are keeping an active lookout on all of the family farmland and property.

Stoner said that as soon as they realized the water was coming in, he and his crews began to build levees around properties that would be affected, including the area around the shop, where most of the farm equipment is located.  Stoner's next step was to figure out how to keep the family business running without having anything planted for the upcoming season.

"March is usually when we start planting corn, so the corn was already eliminated up front," he said. "Then we said maybe we would be able to plant cotton this year, but that all got thrown out the window around the first of May."

Stoner, along with other farmers in the area, had expected the floodwaters to recede by April.  Seeing that the waters would linger over the farmland into the summer months, he had to look at the books again and figure out another way to stay afloat.

"We figured out that we were only going to be able to farm a certain amount of acres," Stoner said. "So we had to regroup and see what we needed to do. We have been looking around and were successful in finding some custom harvesting work this fall. It's not really enough to cover all of the costs, but it makes the bleeding a lot better."

So far 78 percent of Stoner Farms' acreage cannot be planted because of the standing water, including all of the original family land that has been farmed for the last century.

Stoner said he was able to plant only 600 acres of cotton in hills that he farms in another area, as well as another 200 acres in Louise.

"This was supposed to be our family's 100th crop this year," he said. "None of our original family land was able to get planted, and that was something that I have been looking forward to since college."

Stoner said that the family business started in 1919 when his great-grandfather traveled down from Greencastle, Indiana with his wife, two mules and the clothes on their backs. Since that time Stoner Farms has built its heritage around surviving some of the worst floods in Mississippi's history.

"They experienced the 1927, 1937, and 1973 floods, but those waters were out of here by June, and they were able to plant a crop," he said. "I am that generation that did not get to plant a crop on our family land, and I am not alone here. Everybody who is farming in this area right now, they have not gotten to plant a crop on their family land. It’s just something that we thought we would never see."

Stoner's biggest concern right now is keeping the business going without any crops planted, and that means staying in constant contact with banks, creditors, and insurance companies.

"We are still having to borrow money to pay bills," he said. "The farming community is very tight right now with lower commodity prices and higher input prices.  It's hard to make a living right now, and then you have to pay back the money you have borrowed.  I have been calling bankers and equipment creditors asking what we can do to defer payments for this year because we are trying to stay in business."

Stoner said that he is thankful that Stoner Farms has been able to keep all of their employees, but said they are making cutbacks in other areas to try to save money.

"We are bringing our lunches with us and making a lot of repairs ourselves just trying to save money any way we can," he said.

Stoner said that the added stress had an effect on him for the first part of the year as they lived with so much uncertainty for the future.

"There were a lot of nights where I couldn't sleep, and I would just sit up at night," he said. "I would come down here to the shop at three in the morning and just run through the numbers again until we started work."

Stoner said that some residents are living without water or bathrooms in their homes because of septic issues, while others are having to travel by boat to their homes which are cut off by the floodwaters.

"Just think about those things," he said. "That's something that people don't think of when they see all of this flooding."

Stoner was also very outspoken on the need for pumps in the area affected by backwater flooding.

"This has been a devastation on our livelihoods in the South Delta, and it has impacted more than just farmers; It's impacted our whole local economy," he said. "We have businesses shutting down. We have people who are having to relocate to other places. Without getting those pumps put in, the South Delta and the whole general economic area is just going to continue to get worse and worse every time we have one of these flooding events."

Stoner went on to say that the South Delta is important to Mississippi and generates income for the state through its valuable farmland and hunting areas.

"If we don't get these pumps put in, you are going to see pretty much zero life in the South Delta," he said. "This is a place with a lot of history, but there is not a single farmer in this area who can survive two years of this. Nobody can survive this two years in a row, and that is a lot of jobs out the window."

Stoner said that for the time being, the residents of Holly Bluff are looking out for each other as much as they can, and have remained a tight-knit community for much of this disaster. For now, residents and farmers alike wait for the waters to go down, and hope that some relief will come soon.