From left, Tim Clark, Chris Luebbering and Gary Kempker stand on the bank of the Osage River. Clark and Kempker farm along the Osage. Luebbering is president of the Osage River Flood Control Association.
|Island #farming on the Osage--a problem 80 years in the making. #MOFB|
|Six to seven acres are being lost every year as the Osage River banks cave in on the river. #MOFB|
For more than 100 years Gary Kempker’s family has been farming 600 acres of land along the Osage River near Henley, Mo. What makes his farm unique are 67.5 acres he farms that are called “islands” on the Osage River. Kempker owns 2 of the 21 islands on the river which are considered some of the richest farmland in Miller County. Most are owned by farmers.
These days, their farm equipment can’t touch this land without permission from several state and federal agencies. That permission, even if granted, can come after the window of opportunity to farm passes. It is a problem 80 years in the making.
“With the situation that we’re in right now we’re restricted from even putting soybeans in due to the license that came through FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) to Ameren to operate,” Kempker says. “We actually have to get permission to enter our property. This year I doubt we will even get a crop due to the amount of water that’s there.”
These are not true islands. The land is connected to the shore by strips of land solid enough to drive farm machinery over. Kempker usually plants soybeans on both of his islands and consistently produces yields up to 60 bushels per acre. Even during last year’s drought his yields were 52 bushels. That crop generated a little over $50,000 worth of income for his family.
The construction of Bagnell Dam in 1931 created challenges for the island farmers. The Osage, which is the Native American word for “slow river,” saw a significant increase in velocity when floodgates released water from the newly formed Lake of the Ozarks. Kempker says a domino effect took place. The fast current caused the river banks to erode and deposit sediment midstream. This decreased the depth of the river, forcing it to “bow out” where it once ran straight, causing more erosion.
According to studies by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), six to seven acres are currently being lost every year as the river banks cave in on the river. MDC estimates around 650 acres have been lost since the dam was put into operation.
Depending on how much water is released from the dam, water levels can quickly rise or fall. Farmers were in regular communication with dam owner AmerenUE, so they could plan when to farm their land. Six years ago, renewed efforts to clear up the water and save an endangered Pink Mucket mussel were put in place during the relicensing of AmerenUE’s operating permit.
Amy Salveter, with the U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Service (USFWS), says erosion on the lower Osage was a concern expressed by landowners, farmers and others during the relicensing of Bagnell Dam. The USFWS, Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and MDC provided suggestions to FERC to reduce the erosion along the river.
“The new operating license issued by FERC includes Flood Ramp-downs and a Minimum Flow Schedule which help slow the rate at which the river falls after a period of high flows.,” Salveter says. “ Without flood Ramp-downs and a Minimum Flow Schedule, the Osage River level drops quickly, leaving the extra weight in the river banks unsupported, and causes the collapse of the river banks into the Osage River.”
Salveter says high precipitation in the Osage basin since 2007 has made it very difficult for AmerenUE to provide the flows that farmers want to access their islands at the times they prefer.
Gaining access to farm the islands has become a nightmare for landowners. Since the relicensing, AmerenUE, MDC, the DNR and the USFW Service have required farmers to ask permission to “deviate” from the federal plan in order to farm their land. Yet, Salveter says USFWS does not prevent any farmer from accessing islands they own along the river.
AmerenUE is legally obligated to conduct programs to prevent and reduce erosion on the Osage as well as create a habitat for Missouri’s aquatic wildlife. The desire is for the Pink Mucket, a mussel placed on the Endangered Species List in 1976, to repopulate the Osage River. Pink Muckets require a host fish in order to complete their life cycle. Not lost on farmers is the simple fact many of those fish are blocked by Bagnell Dam.
Kempker says neither he nor any of the other island farmers on the Osage River were asked to give input on a plan devised to increase spring water flow in an effort to help the mussel population.
During the last six years, farmers have not been able to plant corn on the islands. With his larger farm equipment and help from his neighbors, Kempker has been able to plant soybeans for the past six years, although those plantings have been as late as July 12th. Other island farmers have not been so lucky and have only planted a crop once or twice in the last six years. The window of opportunity to work fields is sometimes only a matter of hours, giving farmers with small equipment little time to farm their land. Aerial spraying for weed control has become a costly alternative if a crop has been planted.
The landowners send their requests to work farm land to AmerenUE, who forwards the information to state and federal agencies. All need to sign off on the requests. AmerenUE continues to communicate with farmers along the river, but the farmers say government agencies have done a poor job of communicating with them.
“The license requires that we ask for our specific dates (to farm),” Kempker says. “All the farmers are to coordinate on those dates whether they want to work their property, fertilize, plant, harvest or spray. That is sent to Ameren and Ameren sends it on to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, DNR and Conservation Commission. They make the determination whether they will grant a deviation in flow across our roads, and where it stands right now, they have never done that in six years.”
Salveter says the relicensing process took 7 years to complete and during that process the public and other stakeholders were given equal opportunity to provide input.
Chris Luebbering, president of Osage River Flood Control Association, Inc., says he and two other farmers went to close to 50 day-long meetings regarding the issues surrounding the river.
“We were there, but we were partially ignored and we were very much in the minority as far as what they’d let us do or say,” Luebbering says. “They said they’d work with us on that. They’d get something fixed with us on that, and when they come up with this scenario for getting on the islands. We told them right away that it would not work and there’s no way you can have all the farmers be ready to do their cropping on the same day. Besides that, most the time the weather won’t permit that. It’s just impossible, yet they went ahead with it and ignored our wishes. Our rights really are what they ignored.”
Kempker agrees with Luebbering. “They did not come and ask any of the farmers’ input. How would this affect you? Would this work? None.”
Tim Clark’s family has owned and farmed Berry Island since 1921. “My biggest frustration is when we don’t hear anything back in a timely manner,” he says. “There’s too many people that have to get in agreement. You have three or four different agencies. I understand Ameren’s main concern is to produce electricity for their shareholders. I understand that.”
Once the windows for corn and soybean planting have passed, crop insurance is available if the farmer has applied. However, the provision in it for ‘prevented planting’ is only a fraction of the income a crop would generate. In an effort to be heard, Kempker, Clark and other island farmers have written letters to Missouri’s U.S. Senators and Representatives. Most are sympathetic, but have not been able to change how bureaucrats operate. A last option is a class action lawsuit based on recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that require compensation due to loss of use of the land.
Kempker’s goal is simple: to provide for his son’s future and to safeguard his family’s heritage. “What we’re after is access to our property,” Kempker says. “My family has been here over a hundred years. My son is the fourth generation. I want to see it stay.”