LAKE PROVIDENCE, La. — With crop prices soaring, farmers along the lower Mississippi River had been expecting a big year. Maybe even a huge one.
Now, many are facing ruin, with floodwaters swallowing up corn, cotton, rice and soybean fields.
And even more farmland will be drowned in the coming days if engineers throw open a spillway for the first time in 38 years, as they are expected to do, sometime over the weekend. Unlocking the spillway would inundate Louisiana Cajun country with as much as 25 feet of water but would ease the pressure on levees downstream, averting a potentially bigger disaster in New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
Trouble has already found the fields in far northeastern Louisiana, where Tap Parker and about 50 other farmers filled and stacked massive sandbags along an old levee to no avail. The Mississippi flowed over the top Thursday, and nearly 19 square miles of soybeans and corn, known in the industry as "green gold," was lost.
"This was supposed to be our good year. We had a chance to really catch up. Now we're scrambling to break even," said Parker, who has been farming since 1985.
Cotton prices are up 86 percent from a year ago, and corn — which is feed for livestock, a major ingredient in cereals and soft drinks, and the raw material used to produce ethanol — is up 80 percent. Soybeans have risen 39 percent. The increase is attributed, in part, to worldwide demand, crop-damaging weather elsewhere and rising production of ethanol.
While the Mississippi River flooding has not had any immediate impact on prices in the supermarket, the long-term effects are still unknown. A full damage assessment can't be made until the water has receded in many places.
Some of the estimates have been dire, though.
More than 1,500 square miles of farmland in Arkansas, which produces about half of the nation's rice, have been swamped over the past few weeks. In Missouri, where a levee was intentionally blown open to ease the flood threat in the town of Cairo, Ill., more than 200 square miles of croplands were submerged, damage that will probably exceed $100 million. More than 2,100 square miles could flood in Mississippi.
When the water level goes down — and that could take many weeks in some places — farmers can expect to find the soil washed away or their fields covered with sand. Some will probably replant on the soggy soil, but they will be behind their normal growing schedule, which could hurt yields.
For about the last six months, some parts of Louisiana and Mississippi have been battling unusually dry weather. Now they're getting drenched with water.
"We didn't get the rain that inundated the Midwest," said Ted Schneider, who lost $400,000 worth of soybeans when the river spilled across his fields in the northeastern Louisiana parish of East Carroll. "But we're getting all that water now. Just not the way we want it or where we need it."
Many farmers have crop insurance, but it won't be enough to cover their losses. And it won't even come close to what they could have expected with a bumper crop.
"I might get enough money from insurance to take us to a movie, but it better be dollar night," said Karsten Simrall, who lives in Redwood, Miss.
Simrall's family has farmed the low-lying fields in Redwood for five generations and has been fighting floods for years, but it's never been this bad. And the river is not expected to crest here until around Tuesday.
"How the hell do you recoup all these losses?" he said. "You just wait. It's in God's hands."
The Army Corps of Engineers was expected to decide as early as Friday whether to open the Morganza spillway, easing the pressure on levees that protect Baton Rouge, New Orleans and the many oil refineries and chemical plants along the lower reaches of the river.
Sheriffs and National Guardsmen will warn people in a door-to-door sweep through the area, Gov. Bobby Jindal said. In addition to the 2,500 people living inside the spillway, there are 22,500 people and 11,000 structures in the backwater areas that could be flooded.
Shelters are ready to accept up to 4,800 evacuees, the governor said.
"Now's the time to evacuate," Jindal said. "Now's the time for our people to execute their plans. That water's coming."
If Morganza is opened, water would flow 20 miles south into the Atchafalaya River. From there it would roll on to the Gulf of Mexico, flooding swamps and croplands. Morgan City, a community of 12,000, shored up levees as a precaution.
The river's rise may also force the closing of the river to shipping from Baton Rouge to the mouth of the Mississippi as early as next week. That would cause grain barges from the heartland to stack up along with other commodities.
If the portion is closed, the U.S. economy could lose hundreds of millions of dollars a day. In 2008, a 100-mile stretch of the river was closed for six days after a tugboat collided with a tanker, spilling about 500,000 gallons of fuel. The Port of New Orleans estimated the shutdown cost the economy up to $275 million a day.