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Ag helps and flooding hurts Crawford Countys economy
CROP drftls org flood
DRIFTLESS ORGANICS lost their sunflower crop when a field in Star Valley was flooded during the summer of 2007. Losses like these are common in major flooding events. Unfortunately, the fertile bottomlands are often the first to suffer.

CRAWFORD COUNTY - Most residents of Crawford County used to be farmers, or members of farm families, or involved in some way in the county’s farm economy.

In the Blackhawk-Kickapoo Work Plan (B-KWP), approved in April 1967, in a section titled ‘Economic Data,’ it states, “The economy of the Blackhawk-Kickapoo Watershed is largely dependent upon agriculture… Agriculture will remain the dominant factor in the economic life of this watershed. Dairying is the most important single agricultural enterprise with the sale of milk contributing about 36 percent of the total gross cash farm income. Total gross income from the production of livestock and livestock products, including milk, accounts for 85 percent of total gross farm income. Items of importance sold in addition to milk are cattle and calves, swine, chickens and eggs. The sale of crops accounts for about 15 percent of the annual gross income. This portion is relatively large in comparison with other parts of the state owing to the high value of tobacco, an important crop produced in the watershed.”

Not surprisingly, the Blackhawk-Kickapoo Watershed Association sprang up from among the farming community in the 1950s and 1960s.

For this reason, and also because some of the most effective solutions to the county’s and watershed’s flooding problems could be solved in part by the land treatment decisions made by farmers, it is no surprise they played such a dominant role in the watershed working groups.

This is still true today. A Tainter Creek Watershed Association, a producer-led group, has recently formed in the area and has held five meetings to date.

Their next meeting will take place on Monday, August 7, 7:30 p.m., at the Franklin Town Hall in Liberty Pole.

Farming important

The dominance of agriculture in Crawford County has shifted over the years.

Overall, between 1930 and 2012, the total number of reported acres in farming shrunk by 35 percent, from 328,019 in 1930 to 216, 584. Each census between 1930 and 2012 showed a steady downward trend in the number of farms in the county.

Nevertheless, agriculture continues to work hard for Crawford County. In information from the Crawford County U.W. Extension website, as of 2014, agriculture provided jobs for 1,970 Crawford County residents, accounted for $149 million in economic activity, contributed $55 million to the county’s total income, and paid $1.9 million in taxes. This figure does not include all property taxes paid to local schools.

As of the same year, Crawford County agriculture accounted for $55.4 million, or 8.1 percent, of the county’s total income. This includes wages, salaries, benefits and profits of farmers and workers in agriculture-related businesses. Every dollar of agricultural income generates an additional 52 cents of income.

Flooding is expensive

The Blackhawk-Kickapoo Work Plan was developed in April 1967 by the Soil Conservation Service. The dollar figures in the Work Plan are calculated in 1967 dollars. As of 2016, the same $100 from 1967 would now equal $718.58.

 The Plan states “The major problem in the watershed is floodwater damage to crops and pastures, roads and bridges, fences and buildings. The present value of lands, roads, bridges, and other physical improvements subject to inundation by floodwater within the Tainter and Halls Branch Creeks watersheds is $1,209,600 ($8,691,944/2016 in 2016 dollars).”

“Average annual damage from floodwater is estimated at about $42,500. Approximately $11,500 of this amount occurs as road and bridge damage. The remainder is agricultural damage.”

If the plan were updated as-is, substituting 2016 dollars for 1967 dollars, that would mean that the average annual damage from floodwater in the B-K and Halls Branch watersheds would be estimated at $305,397. Damage to roads and bridges at $82,637. Agricultural damage would be $222,760.

Art Amundson, the Crawford County Conservationist when the B-KWP was being written, was quoted in a story in the Crawford County Independent, following the catastrophic flash floods of June 1959, “heavy rains and flash floods cause hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to farm crops and lands in addition to gutting roadbeds, culverts and bridges.” He further explained, “When it involves public property, it involves the pocketbook of every Crawford resident through an increased county tax rate.”

At a meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 1954, in Westby, Vernon County farmers heard a report from the Highway Commissioner for Vernon County at that time, Marcellus Roidt.

Roidt told the gathered farmers that in 1951, there was heavy flood damage, and $126,000 damage to bridges alone. In 2016 dollars that would be $1,124,197.

More recently, Vernon County spent $1,000,000 in 2007, $1,000,000 in 2008, and $450,000 in 2016 repairing damages to roads and bridges caused by flooding, according to Vernon County Highway Department’s Jane Severson.

Information on the costs of repairing flood damages in those years in Crawford County was not immediately available.

In Franklin Township in Vernon County, Town Chairperson Berent Froiland estimates the township spent about $300,000 to repair roads and bridges in the 2016 flood alone.

Leonard Olson, Chairperson of the Utica Town Board in Crawford County, estimates the township spent $105,000 in the 2007 and 2008 floods. In 2016, Olson said, the Township spent $133,416, and is expecting a payment from FEMA in the amount of $100,062. He reported that the township and county were each responsible for paying 12.5 percent of the cost, for a total of 25 percent of the whole.

Strengths and challenges

As detailed in the B-KWP, conservation land treatment is the number one go-to strategy for flood prevention.

The work plan states, “The most significant aspect of the Blackhawk-Kickapoo Work Plan is not only a continuation but an acceleration of the current program of land treatment.”

Later in the document, the authors go on to explain that “it would seem advisable to intensify the land treatment program in the Blackhawk-Kickapoo Watershed since in the six-site study [where building dams was being explored] more than 84 percent of the cropland is Class III and Class IV cropland by capability, with 3,937 acres of Class III, and 3,851 acres of Class IV cropland.”

It continued, “According the Soils Memorandum 22, May 19, 1958, on Land Capability Classifications, the soils in Class III have severe limitations that reduce the choice of plants or require special conservation practices, or both. Soils in Class IV have very severe limitations that restrict the choice of plants, require very careful management, or both.”

In the B-KWP, it was also reported that in 1967, “Fifty-five percent of the farmers [in the watershed] are cooperators with the Crawford or Vernon County Soil and Water Conservation Districts.”

Agricultural damage

Interestingly enough, agricultural damages do not feature prominently in the reporting for the Tainter Creek watershed in the most recent floods.

“We didn’t see too much agricultural damage in the floods,” Leonard Olson, Utica Town Board Chairperson reported. “Most of the agriculture in the township is up on the ridge farms, and the water drains off of those fields. Damage would be seen on the bottom land fields, but there is not much agriculture going on down there.”

In the Executive Summary Report to the Governor (Jim Doyle) of the 2007 and 2008 Severe Weather Recovery Plan produced by Wisconsin Emergency Management and FEMA, a summary of the event and damages was provided. In the ‘Major Findings: Agriculture’ section of the report, impacts were listed as:

The full extent of crop losses cannot be accurately determined until the 2008 harvest is completed, but some estimates indicate damages may be as high as $400 million.

Low-lying farm fields were hardest hit by temporary flooding and reduced yields from washed or leached-away fertilizer applications.

A significant number of fresh vegetable and organic farmers were impacted, especially in the southwest part of the state.

Further down, it lists the ‘Challenges and Recommendations for Future [Agricultural] Recovery Efforts’:

Identifying land conservation practices to minimize future flood damages and developing implementation strategies.

Determining barriers to producers in purchasing and maintaining crop insurance.

A working group should identify a process and methodology for estimating agricultural damages consistently across counties, especially for structural losses and input losses from replanting.

Regional economic development efforts should include members of the agricultural community, given the importance of agriculture in Wisconsin.

Bottomlands important

In the B-KWP, one of the prime economic benefits to be gained by implementing the plan was an increase in agricultural productivity by allowing farmers to plant in the fertile bottomlands.

Of agriculture on the bottom lands, the B-KWP reports “Bottomland soils produce considerably higher yields than ridgeland soils.”

It goes on to explain, “Anticipated benefits from land conversion due to the project are $6,180 [$44,408 in 2016 dollars]. It is anticipated that land conversion will occur on 125 acres. This land, now in pasture, is not being cropped owing to the hazard of frequent flooding. The pasture will be put under cultivation as a result of the project.”

Finally, the work plan spelled out that either land treatment measures on Class Three or Class Four ridgetop farmland would need to be intensified for cropping to be safely continued, or it would need to be converted to a non-cropping agricultural use.

The work plan states, “The second alternative is to re-evaluate the Class Three and Class Four land with the plan of diverting most of the Class Four to other than cropland use, and to change to pasture or woodland some part of the Class Three land. This goal can only be accomplished by a rather radical change in management factors on remaining cropland [on the ridges and in the bottom lands] to equal or surpass the production of corn, oats and hay on “lost” cropland.”

An argument could be made that the most profound agricultural damage in the watershed is a shortfall in the economic opportunity for farmers in the watershed to farm in the area’s fertile bottomlands.

Damage reduction

In the B-KWP, a table appeared which showed the estimated average annual flood damage reduction benefits.

Without the project, annual crop, pasture and other agricultural damages would be $28,239 ($202,920 in 2016 dollars); annual damage to roads and bridges would be $9,513 ($68,359 in 2016 dollars.

With the project implemented, annual crop, pasture and other agricultural damages would be $8,792 ($63,178 in 2016 dollars); annual damage to roads and bridges would be $1,736 ($12,475 in 2016 dollars).

So total savings in damages resulting from flooding was to have been $19,447 ($139,742 in 2016 dollars); savings in road and bridge damages was to have been $7,777 ($55,884 in 2016 dollars).

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