Industries in PdC fight prolonged flood

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Charlie Jones, 10, of Prairie du Chien (foreground), and a few of his buddies enjoyed a nice, sunny day Thursday afternoon, fishing for largemouth bass on St. Feriole Island. Charlie said the group waded to various locations on the island to fish. Here, they are standing on the road and casting lures for bass into the native prairie. “There are bass all over in there,” said Charlie, who noted he had caught about a 3-pounder earlier. Charlie was tossing a frog at this spot. Many of the roadways on the island remained under water yet week, especially stifling trucks wanting to deliver to Gavilon Grain. (Photo by Ted Pennekamp)

Editor’s note: This is the third story in a series about Prairie du Chien’s St. Feriole Island experiencing sustained flooding for two and a half months, and how that has affected the community.

By Correne Martin

Gavilon Grain has not loaded a single barge yet this shipping season. 

Nelson Hardwoods could not get into the woods to haul out trees for harvesting. 

Valley Fish and Cheese has spent three hours per commercial fishing catch, rather than the typical hour, because of the added riverway obstacles and debris snagging the nets.

As a historic Mississippi River town, Prairie du Chien prospers most when the meandering waters stay within their banks, and local industries and commerce can take the liberty to do business on the river.

But this spring has not been industry friendly. In fact, the rare periods of optimum weather and interconnected river levels have left some companies at a near standstill.

The Mississippi has now been 84 consecutive days above flood stage. The National Weather Service of La Crosse predicts the level at McGregor to drop below the 16-foot minor stage by Wednesday.

“We loaded out millions of bushels on barges by this time last year. We haven’t loaded any yet this year,” said Heath Thomas, manager at Gavilon, which accepts and transports commodities via the riverfront property at 800 Villa Louis Rd. “It’s already turned the shipping season from eight months into five months. Last year, we started loading March 10, but here we are in June still waiting to see our first barge.”

To work through the stagnancy pain, Gavilon has trucked some grain, destined for the Gulf, to another location located along a rail line. Thomas said, the business has laid off a few of its 14 local employees and sent a couple to other locations to work at times over the last couple months.

Not only has Gavilon been unable to ship grain, the 84 days of persistently high water has also made buying more difficult simply because the company can’t take delivery of the grain.

“When you can’t get grain from point A to point B, and we want to work with our farmers, grain ends up getting kicked to other places.” Thomas stated. Otherwise, he explained, some farmers have their grain sold and owe it to Gavilon but they are storing it until shipment. “The delayed start of the shipping season combined with some 90-degree days have some farmers concerned on the quality once they are able to open up their bins and start hauling.”  Farmers have bills to pay too, so they are getting eager to be able to start delivering.

"When you’re used to seeing around 300 trucks a day in this town and then all of a sudden you don’t, there are places like repair shops, diesel shops and eating places that notice it as well,” Thomas said. "Basically, we’re trying to trade out of the inverses in the market which has been made more difficult due to the upper half of the Mississippi River being closed with the ongoing flooding.” 

To make the best of the situation, Gavilon is currently buying and selling deferred grain for this fall and next summer. 

Manufacturing at Nelson Hardwood Lumber Company—over at 305 E. Frederick St.—has been well behind average season pace as well, according to Brian Nelson, one of three brothers who own the business. 

Ordinarily, facility production stays about one month ahead of schedule with its lumber orders. But, as of last week, “everything was pretty much sawed up,” Nelson stated. “We’ve laid three guys off out of about 55.”

The sawmill mainly produces random length grade lumber from logs brought in from a 100-mile radius of Prairie du Chien. Cool and wet forest conditions have prevented Nelson Hardwood from accessing the trees they need for harvest. 

“We usually do quite a bit of logging through about March 15. Then there’s a break and we’re back in the woods by about May 10. As of June 4, the sawmill was essentially empty and the company was just hoping to get into the woods soon. 

“If it straightens out quickly, we’ll be OK,” Nelson said. 

Valley Fish and Cheese Owner Mike Valley is also hoping the weather and river settle down in the near future. Having worked the Mississippi as a commercial fisherman his entire life, he said he’s never seen such continually high water in the Prairie du Chien area.

“It will go down, I think, but we always get a September raise too. I’m very doubtful it will be down for long at all this year,” Valley surmised. “I think this is a trend that’s the new norm.”

Setting nets in his normal locales has brought in no sheepshead, one of his customers’ most sought-after products, according to Valley.

“It’s easier to catch a minnow in a coffee cup than a 55-gallon barrel,” he quipped. “There are a few people out on the river, but very few.”

While leisure fishermen may be out the recreational opportunity, Valley and his employees can’t give up. Instead, they work harder. 

“It takes way longer and is a lot more difficult to get fish,” he said. 

The reality of the river’s wrath is also felt within the fish and cheese store, which thrives on tourists who come to this little river town for travel and entertainment as well. All of Valley’s wood for smoking his fish comes from Nelson Hardwoods, which is running thin on lumber. Furthermore, it’s not good business, he said, when customers come in looking for several products that the river has not sourced the business this year. 

“We try to fill in with something else. We’re maintaining about 95 percent (of our product) right now,” Valley said. “But, the last two weeks, we’ve started to see the flood taking its toll more. We’ve had fewer boaters and travelers in.

“This will have huge impacts  on the entire region. I just don’t know what to do.”

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