BY TOM O'NEILL
The Cincinnati Enquirer
His farm's fertile topsoil now somewhere downstream, Johnny Haitz of Ripley, Ohio, sees his livelihood buried under a disheartening expanse of tree branches, tires, rocks and sand.
It once was a field - hay, corn and tobacco mostly.
The corn-planting season is now four to six weeks away, but the recovery, he suspects, will take years. Many of Mr. Haitz's tobacco beds, which have in recent years produced 40,000 pounds of tobacco, are destroyed.
The biggest problem faced on flooded farms, farmers and agricultural officials agree, is the loss of topsoil. Other than moving earth from other fields, it can't be replaced. In addition, much of the lost topsoil was deposited along the banks of streams, possibly altering their paths. In some areas of Mr. Haitz's farm, 3-4 feet of earth has washed away, leaving him mostly rocks, he said.
The flood that devastated many Ohio River valley farms probably will not affect food prices because much of what we eat is produced elsewhere.
The long-term environmental impact should be minimal to humans if burning of agricultural debris and disposal of dead livestock is done properly, experts said.
While Mr. Haitz said he would continue farming - the only real job he's ever had - other Tristate farms may not survive the flood, according to several observers. They include Mark Van Hoose, executive director of the Brown County Farm Service Agency, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The agency administers farm programs and is assessing damage.
Mr. Van Hoose estimates half of Brown County's 5,000 acres of winter wheat, planted in February when farmers took advantage of unseasonably warm weather, are gone. ''Some fields are probably never going to come back,'' he said.
Mr. Haitz, who has lived on his farm overlooking picturesque Eagle Creek for all of his 50 years, counts himself among the fortunate. He lost four calves and two cows, and had to sell about a dozen other cows and hogs - at half the usual $425 price - because the fences that contained them were washed away. Much of the feed used to fatten his livestock was ruined in the flood, too.
''I figure I've lost about $20,000 so far, just in livestock I had to sell because my fences are gone, and the offspring they would have produced,'' Mr. Haitz said. Forty of his 350 acres remained underwater as of Thursday.
Where Eagle Creek's east and west forks converge, the Ohio River tributary also damaged much of Duane Scott's 250-acre tobacco and cattle farm. ''It's going to take years and years,'' he assessed. ''The Lord is going to have to do the work replacing the topsoil.''
Mike Kaufman, executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Clermont County, predicted topsoil losses would hit flood-stricken farmers there harder than livestock or crop losses.
While the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can help farmers offset expenses for lost livestock, winter wheat or debris cleanup, for example, topsoil is an unreimburseable loss, he said.
Mr. Haitz, like many farmers, had no flood insurance because his inland creek never posed a major threat. He considers FEMA his last hope.
Though proper cleanup will minimize environmental risks to humans, L.J. Osborne, extension agent in Kenton County, expects soilborne diseases to endanger plants.
''If you look at recent history, anytime we have a major flood we also have an increased occurrence of soilborne diseases in major crops,'' he said.
Transfer of crop diseases, particularly in tobacco, is a concern, said Bill Brannen, deputy statistician with the Kentucky Agricultural Statistics Service in Louisville.
Other environmental dangers include spontaneous combustion of water-damaged hay, and air-quality concerns from improper disposal of dead livestock and burning vegetation. Dead livestock must be buried, cremated or removed by a licensed rendering company.
The Ohio Emergency Operations Center has allowed for agricultural debris to be burned through March 31 in federally designated flood disaster areas, but it warned against burning carpeting, tires and plastic that might release toxic chemicals.
Kathleen Hillenmeyer contributed to this report.