BY KATHLEEN HILLENMEYER
The Cincinnati Enquirer
BLUE CREEK, Ohio - Before the flood-swollen Brush Creek submerged 40 acres of his farm last month, George Lewis hoped for a bumper crop of tobacco.
To the pound - 11,001, precisely - the Adams County farmer recalls his tobacco losses in 1996, when blue mold and adverse weather ruined one-third of his expected 35,000-pound yield.
''Everybody has a lot of tobacco to raise to make up for last year,'' said Mr. Lewis, 68, who despite $10,000 in flood-related damages, vows to ready his tobacco beds for seedlings by June. ''If it dries up and the weather gets normal, from here on out we'll be all right.''
Seven weeks after the March floods, Tristate farmers whose fields were engulfed aren't waiting idly while Congress considers more flood-relief appropriations. They're rushing to prepare what's left of their topsoil for corn, soybean and tobacco - and predicting low yields come harvest time.
''So much debris, rocks and gravel washed into the fields that they're going to have to hurry to get the farms back in shape to put out a crop,'' said Farm Service Agency director Brenda Raines of Adams County, where 500 farmers have applied for federal emergency cost-sharing grants.
''A few have basically given up on cropping their fields this year,'' said Mrs. Raines, whose U.S. Department of Agriculture agency administers the funds. ''They can't get everything cleaned up and leveled.''
Counting himself lucky to have escaped more severe losses, Mr. Lewis will spend $5,000 alone rebuilding washed-out ditches. Together, he and fellow Adams County growers account for nearly half of the $8.9 million in emergency conservation funds that Ohio farmers await from the U.S. government, now inundated with disaster relief requests.
In a burley-dependent county robbed by Mother Nature of $4 million in tobacco sales last year, ''we can't wait on that (money),'' said Mr. Lewis, who will proceed with spring planting. ''Hopefully, we'll get it by Christmas.''
From California floods to Arkansas tornadoes, ''we've had enough disasters in this country this year that the till is bare,'' said Steve Maurer, Ohio's Farm Service Agency director.
Deluged farmers on the Minnesota-North Dakota border also are expected to queue up for the $20 million in supplemental appropriations pending before Congress.
''There are quite a few people in line wanting some assistance right now,'' said Tim Denley, U.S. director of the agency's conservation division.
If approved by Congress, the extra funds could offset up to 64 percent of Tristate farmers' costs for rebuilding fences, removing debris and leveling eroded fields. Far from a cure-all, the cost-sharing program won't cover waterlogged equipment, demolished barns or lost crops and livestock.
Topsoil, the most common casualty on the Ohio Valley's flooded farms, likewise is excluded from coverage. But Kentucky officials are asking the federal government to allow ''special practice'' cost-sharing to help the state's farmers gradually restore nutrients to their land.
''There's not an immediate recourse; you can't go haul the topsoil from the Mississippi back to your farm,'' said Bob Finch, communications coordinator for Kentucky's Farm Service Agency. ''But you can start rebuilding.''
Planting cover crops and other topsoil-restoration practices are among long-range plans farmers could use in Pendleton County, where the $1 million they've requested in conservation dollars far exceeds other counties' needs. Pendleton tops Kentucky's list with the most cost-sharing funds sought, trailed by Kenton and Mason counties with $100,000 each.
Corn and tobacco growers in the Licking River valley ''are facing a long-term reduced earning capacity,'' Mr. Finch said. ''We've had people who say they've produced 200 bushels per acre of corn and now they think they'd be lucky to get 50. So that's a drastic cut in their productivity.''
Straddling the Ohio River as Farm Service Agency director both in Scioto County, Ohio, and Greenup County, Kentucky, John Fetters has taken 300 farmers' applications for emergency funds.
''I've seen holes washed into fields that are big enough to bury a house in,'' said Mr. Fetters, whose counties likewise suffered topsoil erosion. He worries, too, about remote tributaries still clogged by rock deposits, which neither federal nor state cleanup crews are clearing because they wind through private property.
''A lot of stream channels have been blocked by debris,'' Mr. Fetters said. ''The next time a 1- or 2-inch rain falls it's going to cause a flood now where it shouldn't have before.''
Down river in Ohio's Brown County, Donald Holton has watched as neighboring farmers hired bulldozers at $70 an hour to clear large rocks and branches from their fields. The 71-year-old Decatur man raises corn, tobacco, hay and beef cattle where Eagle Creek's east and west forks converge.
''It's just hard when you work your whole life to have things straightened around and you look out there and see silt covering it up,'' said Mr. Holton, who can't drive a tractor over patches of his 300 acres until the thick, wet sludge dries.
Mr. Holton's application for emergency conservation dollars is among $1 million for which Brown County farmers asked.
''You don't know if you're going to get any money or not,'' he said. ''But you still have to use a bulldozer to get the rocks moved so you can plant.''
FARMERS SEEK FEDERAL RELIEF