WARE — In a normal year, Mitchel McLane plants about 2,700 acres of corn and soybeans on his farm in Union County.

This year, he’ll plant less than 1,000, he expects.

Another thousand are underwater, swallowed by the swelling Mississippi River, which is set to crest in the region on Monday at near-record highs.

Hundreds of acres more are inaccessible, McLane said, cut off by flood waters, or sitting too soggy to plant.

“We’ve got a little over 10% planted right now and usually we’re done,” by this time of year, McLane said.

Statewide, farmers have seeded only about 45% of the 11.2 million acres of Illinois farmland expected to receive corn this year, per the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The nation’s No. 2 corn-producing state has never been so slow to seed, USDA records show, and soybeans are lagging, too, with just 21% of the expected Illinois crop planted as of June 3.

“Some farmers for the first time in their lifetime are experiencing the decision of whether or not to have a crop, period,” said Stephanie Rhodes, manager of the Union County Farm Bureau. “People have never had to make a decision like this before.”

Each year, Southern Illinois farmers hope to plant their corn in mid-to-late-April, to enjoy the best yield at the end of the 60-day growing season.

This year, that window is long passed, and fields remain unusable.

For the first time in his experience, McLane will have to file a large-scale “prevented planting” insurance claim, he said, giving him a small return on his acres of waterlogged cornfield.

He’ll hold on a little longer for his soybean acreage, in hopes of still getting a crop in. By June 20, he must decide whether to take a prevented planting payout on that land, too.

Farmers who file prevented planting claims receive about 55% to 60% of what they’d earn per acre on a 75%-of-average yield, said Mark Kabat, the downstate regional manager for Farm Credit Illinois.

“The figure is a safety net,” Kabat explained. “If you have no input costs in the ground and you’re not in too much debt, you can survive and do OK on that for a year. If you have fertilizer and chemicals on the ground and you’re paying off a combine or land, it may not be enough.”

McLane did have fertilizer down, an expense of at least $100 an acre, he estimates. He’ll be counting on “very understanding bankers,” he said, to work with his family on their land mortgage payments.

“We’ll be OK in the long term, but in the short term it’ll hurt us bad,” he said.

For now, McLane is staying busy cleaning up around his farm and monitoring levees as a levee commissioner for his district.

He’s one of many local farmers who volunteer to maintain the flood walls that they and their rural communities depend on.

“We all farm here, and we all live here. We’re not only protecting farmland, we’re protecting our homes,” said Kent Treece, another Ware farmer who has long served on the Preston Drainage and Levee District in Union County.

As Southern Illinois struggles to convince the federal government to invest in its Mississippi River levees, most of which have received a “U,” or “Unacceptable” rating from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Rhodes hopes lawmakers will think about the value of the agricultural economy in the river bottoms.

“Our farmers represent a very important and significant part of the tax base here in Union County. And if they lose their land and their homes, that is a tremendous impact to the local economy,” she said. “If there is a silver lining to all this flooding, hopefully there will be greater awareness of the care our levees desperately need.”

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Gabriel Neely-Streit is a reporter for The Southern covering higher education.

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