DYERSBURG, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Lee took an aerial tour of flooded fields in western Tennessee on Wednesday, promising support to distressed farmers who warn they haven't seen such conditions in nearly a century.
Flooding that has refused to leave since October is now spilling over into mid-July, alarming local communities and state officials about the potential long term effects such sustained conditions could have on the region — particularly financial hardships for the agricultural industry.
According to farmers, tough decisions must be made in the next two weeks about whether soybeans, corn and other crops can be planted in order to be viable before the first frost. They must weigh whether to forgo planting or risk planting valuable seed only to see it die potentially later.
"I had to see it for myself," Lee told The Associated Press from the helicopter. "We want to elevate the situation."
Lee flew over Lauderdale and Dyer counties on the state's Blackhawk helicopter. The region is used to flooding, but officials this year said it's rare to see waterlogged fields late into planting season. Many farmers told the governor they have experienced flooded fields since October; others said it's been a constant from as early as September.
Agriculture officials say nearly 25% to 30% of the counties are experiencing flooding. From the air, large swaths of muddy water could be seen in brown, empty fields. Water crept dangerously close to state highways, threatening transportation of whatever crops could be planted on slightly higher ground in the region. Muddy tracks decorated the empty crop land where farmers hope the next week will remain dry enough to alleviate the moisture.
Lee repeatedly said throughout the day that it was important for him to visit the area to raise awareness about the issue and to work on coordinating with state and federal agencies to mitigate any potential financial losses.
"What's happening here is historic," Lee said. "We have producers losing multiple years of crops. Agriculture is the largest sector of our economy, so that's why we're here."
Lee and key members of his Cabinet stopped in Dyersburg — a rural area roughly 170 miles (275 kilometers) from Nashville — to meet with various farmers, lawmakers and government officials to reiterate his support. The aerial tour Wednesday included Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Hatcher, USDA Tennessee Director Dennis Beavers, Lee's Chief Operating Office Butch Eley and the governor's communication director.
"I've got two landlords and no crops," said Eugene Pugh, who farms in Lauderdale County, speaking in front of the governor in Dyersburg. "Not being able to plant a crop is not a good feeling."
Pugh said he had been farming since 1965 and could not remember a time when the flood had lasted until July.
Farmer Alan Meadows, who grows soybeans, said the length of the flood has begun to take a mental toll. Anxiety over what to do, when to plant and what to let go were constant worries he had at night. Currently, Meadows is deciding if he must forgo 20% of his 3,800 acre (1,540 hectare) farmland because the area is too wet to plant.
USDA officials promised to work with the farmers on a case by case basis to mitigate losses and listed various loan and other finance programs farmers could take advantage of, while state lawmakers encouraged the public to reach out to them.