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"It won’t just impact farmers. It will impact everybody” | How the drought isn't just affecting the Mississippi River

The extreme heat this summer jump started the drought conditions for farmers. But, now the Mississippi River could cause problems for the crops that they harvested.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — It’s no secret.

The Mississippi River is at record low levels.

Over the last few weeks, we have seen fish carcasses, boats stuck in the mud and an overall very eerie scene across the river.

Well unfortunately, we were not the only ones dealing with the drought.

The Mighty Mississippi River is over 2,000 miles long and the devastating photos are what drew many people’s attention to the dry conditions.

We here at ABC24 and CW30 have been monitoring the effects of the drought and its' impact on farmers since this summer.

Back in September, Chief Meteorologist John Bryant and I took a trip to Panola County, Mississippi to talk about how the extreme heat has impacted Mid-South farmers.

Our first stop was the USDA in Batesville.

We spoke with Kimbal Billingsley who is the Panola County USDA County Executive.

This isn't the first summer where extreme heat has impacted farmers, but many of them have had to make adjustments to help mitigate the loss and lack of rain.

“They’ve learned by hard knocks," Billingsley said. "They do the research. They work with the people that represent the seed companies and the other places and they develop more varieties that are more adaptive to the weather that we are seeing. They prefer to get the crops in earlier because they can get them out earlier before that really dry spell hits.”

Making those adjustments can become costly and unfortunately, prices industry wide are on the rise too.

“Prices have gone up, but expenses have as well at the same time. So, it’s tougher and tougher, the cashflow and that farmer that stays in business that length of time, he or she has done a wonderful job of managing that bottom line,” adds Billingsley.

We've talked to four farmers about how the 2022 drought has impacted their livelihood.

They all farm different crops, but they all agree: the industry has gotten expensive.

Jason Morris is a soybean farmer in Batesville.

He is one of the farmers that has had to adjust their crop.  

“We came in and sprayed a burn down chemical over the field and we come in with a no till planter and plant this crop. The reason we do that is because it conserves moisture in the ground,” adds Morris.

Morris said that the season started off too wet for them to plant anything so they got some of their crops in late, and once they were in the heat came and the rain held off.

“I mean we had dry, dry night time temperatures. We had dry morning temperatures. It just wasn’t enough there to create any moisture, whatsoever,” Morris said.

John Thomas is a farmer in Panola County Mississippi.

He farms cotton, soybean and wheat, just to name a few.

Much like other farmers in the Mid-South, Thomas really struggled with getting his crop in during our summer heatwave.

“We almost didn’t get this planted because it was so wet. We finally got it in and then from June the 7th to August 21st, we never had a rain,” Thomas said.

Cotton is not directly affected by the heat like soybeans, but Thomas has seen a difference in his crop.

“They are all going to be hard-locked, knotted up bowls like this one. The grade will be terrible, and the picker will hardly pick that cotton. It is just going to throw a lot of that out on the ground. ‘All because of the weather?’ Yes sir, just hot, dry weather,” Thomas added.

The lack of growth coupled with the increase in the price of farming has really taken its toll.

“This year the fuel (is) so high. Fertilizer is three times what it was, everything that we do is outrageous,” adds Thomas

Soybean and cotton farmers are not the only ones struggling with the drought.

In Hernando, Mississippi, District 1 supervisor Jessie Medlin has been having a hard time with a drought in his own yard.

“Cattle drink a lot of water and some places you don't have any way to water them with city water or well water so you depend on mother nature and so, the ponds dry up they don't have much water to drink,” Medlin said.

The pond that is on his property is the lowest he’s seen it in five years and he welcomes any rain he can get.

“I was just thankful last week that we got one inch of rain here and that’s probably the first rain we’ve had in two months,” Medlin said.

Most of his cattle eat grass, but the heat killed the grass earlier this year, forcing him to feed them hay months earlier than anticipated.

"Hay was short simply because no rain in the area and it's affected all the farmers,” he said.

RELATED: How low Mississippi River levels impact farmers heading into harvest season

So how does the Mississippi River play a part in farming?

According to the United Soybean Board, soybean is used to provide meals to about 61% of chickens and 18% of pigs and cattle.

In your home, soybean is used for frying, baking and other cooking needs.

We all know cotton is in most of our clothes, but in the kitchen we cook with cottonseed oil.

The National Cotton Council of America says that the fiber makes up 75% of our paper currency.

Corn, soybeans and cotton are just some of the products transported on barges at different points on the Mississippi.

A recent report suggests that the Mississippi River supports more than 90% of agricultural exports in the United States.

RELATED: Mississippi River at Memphis reaches lowest level on record

The river is drying up because of the lack of rain and snow melt across the lower Mississippi Valley.

John Butler is a soybean farmer in Dyer County. He is also the president of the Agricenter here in Memphis.

Barge traffic is at a standstill, and he is concerned about the movement of goods through the Mississippi River.

“We have to have food and fiber to be sustainable," Butler said. "Luckily, we’ve got the best system in the world. But right now. We are certainly being challenged.”

All of the farmers we talked to said this is the worst drought they've ever seen and to top it off, cold weather has made an early appearance.

The early October freeze officially ended the growing season.

Now, it's time to harvest, sell and ship so whatever crop that made it through the drought, now has to survive on barges that are not moving.

"So, food inflation will be part of the major story over the next couple of months because that hasn't been priced into the product that is on the shelf yet. But, it will be," Butler said.

There’s not a quick fix to the dried up Mississippi.

Dredging is an option, but it won’t be enough for all barge traffic to flow.

"It won’t just impact farmers. It will impact everybody,” said Butler.

RELATED: USDA announces $1 billion debt relief for 36,000 farmers

Rain is back in the forecast again for the beginning of next week.

Unfortunately, it will not cure our drought conditions.

Farmers have been struggling with getting their crops to grow during the extreme heat that we had this summer, and now the dried up Mississippi will delay getting those products in our homes.

We usually see river levels rise in December, but that’s months away.

The real solution is waiting for Mother Nature to provide a significant rainfall to help return the Mighty Mississippi back to normal.

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