Mississippi Delta Flooding Impacting Local Businesses

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Mississippi Delta Flooding Impacting Local Businesses
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Junae Brooks
Alexandra Watts

The quarter of a million acres of farmland underwater in the Delta is not only affecting farmers, but small businesses in the region. MPB’s Alexandra Watts reports on how businesses are struggling in the wake of the flooding.

In the South Mississippi Delta, fields normally green with crops are now large bodies of water, roads are submerged and there are displaced animals — and roadkill.

Off Highway 61 in Rolling Fork, Chuck’s Dairy Bar is not under water.

But Tracy Harden, the restaurant’s owner says her business is also affected by recent floods.

“You know you get your farmers sitting there in the morning with nothing to do,” Harden said. “When they’re usually coming in to grab a quick breakfast to get to the fields…if they even get the chance to get breakfast. We’re usually at such a busy time around here this time of year, you don’t stop and talk.”

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250,000 farm acres are flooded and farmers this year have been unable to plant.

“Now my mornings are spent telling these farmers — ‘I’m praying for you, how are you today? I’m thinking about you…let me know how we can help.’”

Like many in Rolling Fork, Harden’s business depends on the farmers and farm workers in the area.

Farmers are figuring out how to pay workers, and business owners are facing similar problems.

“Now, you’re thinking, ‘Who can I cut back as far as who needs their job the most?’ That’s a horrible decision to have to make, but if you’re going to stay in business, we’re going to have to make some decisions like that.”

At Britton Furniture and Appliance down the road, Jennifer Britton says Rolling Fork stores count farmers as their best customers.

“Everything is dependent on a farm around here,” she said. "Their spending affects the labor. It just affects this whole community because it’s so based around agriculture.”

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According to the USDA, the average Sharkey County farm sells a little over 600,000 dollars worth of products. But with this year’s flooding, the numbers are expected to fall short.

Britton and her husband own this store. They have additional products like shirts and jewelry available, but most of what they sell is furniture.

“At least every day, we were selling furniture,“ Britton said. “No furniture is being bought. You might sell a t-shirt, you might sell a necklace. You might have a good day once a week versus having three to five good days.”

Fifteen miles away in Holly Bluff, Junae Brooks also looks back on how her business was last year.

“Last year at this time, we were probably doing 30 to 40 plate lunches for farmers,” Brooks said. And today alone, I think I had five customers.”

In a small neighborhood building, Brooks’ store serves the residents of Holly Bluff, a town that has seen its population decrease even before the flooding.

Brooks wonders if this flooding means more people will move.

“The trickle down, it hurts me, Mr. Buddy who sells parts and gas. I sell groceries. The farmers just can’t afford to come in.”

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Mr. Buddy is Buddy Strong, who owns a gas station down the road.

As you stand near the front counter, surrounded by sodas and other snacks, there are two gas pumps outside. Down on the floor, there is also a box of hydraulic hoses. Strong paid a lot for this product and expected it to sell.

But with some farmers not able to plant a single crop, the hoses are not selling.

“See this right behind you here,” Strong said. “There’s a box — half-inch hydraulic hose. It’s expensive. It’s been sitting there for two months. And I wouldn’t have ordered it if I didn’t need it.”

Strong has had to let go of workers in the past, and now runs the store himself. If it closes, he says he will be fine, but wants to serve this small community.

He says the equipment he has sold for years has kept his business afloat.

“That’s what I make money off. I’m selling about maybe a little less fuel, you don’t make money on fuel.”

From Holly Bluff back to Rolling Fork, business owners are worried about the future.

Restaurant owner Tracy Harden says what happens now affects what will happen later.

Harden says planting season is the best time of year for sales, and that the following harvest season tends to be slower.

“Where I would have a farmer coming in daily to pick up nine or ten people..they’re coming to get lunch for themselves. What that means now is that they’re only feeding one, come harvest time, they’re only feeding one. There’s nothing to harvest if they can’t get it planted.”

But with business down, she worries about everything from Christmas bonuses to offering more hours.

The flood water remains in the South Delta, and farmers, business owners, and residents aren’t sure what is next — but Harden is optimistic that the communities can stick together.

“They don’t know how long the effects are going to last from it. But we’ll pull together and do our best to get through it all.”

Alexandra Watts is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of the The GroundTruth Project. www.ReportforAmerica.org