When The Levee Breaks

After recovering from a devastating flood in 1993, this Missouri father-son team plows ahead, trying new approaches and hoping the river remains in its banks.

By Tharran E. Gaines | Photos By Charles Riedel

It’s with mixed feelings that Darren Littleton guides a bulldozer through an abandoned farmyard. On one hand, the land will mean a few more acres of valuable river-bottom property to add to his family’s farmland. Yet, to Darren and his dad, Robert “Bob” Littleton, this patch of land, the remaining outbuildings and the foundation of the old farmhouse, also serve as a reminder of the diminishing number of farmers, especially here, in their hometown of Dalton, Mo.

The 1993 flood on the Missouri River was historic and devastating. On the right-hand page of this book, Darren points to a photo of the Littleton place after the waters rose.

The 1993 flood on the Missouri River was historic and devastating. On the right-hand page of this book, Darren points to a photo of the Littleton place after the waters rose.

Today, the town that was once home to some 400 residents and the business hub for even more, has dwindled to a grain elevator, a post office, two churches, a community center and a few residences. Due to the effects of the flood of 1993 and the consolidation of farms into fewer, larger operations, the population of Dalton had declined to just 17 people in the 2010 census. Ironically, that flood 30-plus years ago almost put Darren out of business too.

“That was the first year I farmed full time,” Darren says. “And between Dad and me, we lost all but 6 acres of crops in the flood. Dad even lost his house due to all the water damage.”

“It took five years just to recover from that,” says Bob, who started farming on his own in 1966. “And the cleanup was terrible. We found everything from tires and propane tanks to duck blinds and chemical jugs in our fields. If it was upstream and would float, we found it.”

In the meantime, Darren was pursuing a second venture as a partner in an aerial application business. After attending an aviation school in Louisiana during two consecutive winters, he was just 50 hours short of having his own commercial pilot’s license.

“My former partner is still involved in aerial application in Florida,” he says, noting that he quit the crop-spraying business in 2012, having been in it since 2008. “Since we only have about a 60-day window around here to spray crops, you almost have to be a gypsy and travel throughout the Midwest to make it work. Add the liability and the fact that you can’t find any hired help for the farm, and it was just time to get out of it.

“I still miss the business and I miss the people,” he adds, “but, to be honest, I was probably too old when I got started into it. I was already farming with Dad and I had a family at home, so the travel was getting harder all the time.”

That’s not to say farming doesn’t have its own challenges. Like so many farmers today, Darren has found that he and his dad have to continually look for ways to control costs, all the while expanding the operation, which now consists of about 2,500 acres of mostly corn and soybeans.

One of the ways they’ve done that is to purchase parcels in the area that need some work, such as the old farmstead they bought last year.

Darren disks with the Sunflower 6631 VT.

Darren disks with the Sunflower 6631 VT.

Equipped with their own hydraulic excavator, tracked dozer, skid-steer loader and land leveler, they’ve cleared land themselves—whether it’s filling and leveling a silted-in pond; cleaning up fields damaged by past floods; or removing trees that once provided shade to a long-forgotten farmhouse.

There have been times when the benefits have extended beyond the added acreage. That was the case a few years ago when Darren purchased 40 acres “up in the hills,” which was just coming out of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

While the partial conversion to farm ground required removing a few volunteer trees, it also meant the field hadn’t been farmed for several years. Hence, Darren saw the opportunity to grow a crop of certified organic soybeans.

“It was such a mess that you couldn’t even walk through it,” he recalls, pointing out that they continue to preserve habitat where it makes sense. “It was just covered with brush and volunteer cottonwood trees. Even now, I’m only farming 21 acres of it due to a wetland in the middle of it and a creek that runs across the area.

“I still haven’t decided what to do with it next … whether to plant no-till corn or try another organic crop. There’s a pretty good premium per bushel on organic crops,” he says, noting the organic soybeans can bring $20 per bushel or more. “But it takes a lot of work, since you can’t use chemicals. Even to put in the first crop, I had to prove that the field hadn’t been sprayed with any crop chemicals for at least five years and pay a fee to have it certified organic,” Darren recalls.

Adding that only 500 to 600 of their 2,500 acres is leased or rented, he adds, “Every time you look at cash-renting a field, there are usually three guys in line ahead of you who are willing to pay more. Our feeling is if you’re going to have to pay $300 or more per acre for rent, you might as well go through Farm Credit and own it in 20 years.”

Of course, being just 41 years of age and “one of the babies” among the area farmers, Darren figures he will be farming the land long enough for it to be worth the investment. In the meantime, he and his dad have changed the way they farm in order to conserve costs and preserve the land.

For example, instead of disking fields as they once did, they now use a Sunflower® Model 6631 VT for vertical tillage. As a result, they’re able to leave the majority of residue on the soil surface, while still providing minimal tillage and creating channels for moisture penetration.

“Most of our land is level enough that we don’t have to worry about water erosion. And they’ve rebuilt the river levees; they’re better than they’ve ever been,” Bob relates. “The bigger issue is the price per acre,” especially, he says, as an operation grows.

More acres simply demand bigger equipment, Darren insists. “I still remember the year we had so much rain that we literally had two weeks to get everything planted.”

Still, he says, “it’s safe to say I wouldn’t be doing this full time without help from Dad. The sad thing is that I can count on one hand the number of other farmers in the area that are my age who have been able to do the same thing.”