Rebuilding from the Rubble

Tucked away under their basement stairs, Bruce and Carol Peterson believed the storm that swept across their family’s Northfield, Minnesota, farm was going to be no big deal. 

“We could hear what sounded like leaves and branches hitting the house, so we thought there were only going to be a few trees down,” Carol remembers.

Emerging from their shelter, the destructive power of the storm was far greater than the couple could have imagined. On the ground for mere minutes, the row-crop and livestock operation found itself in the path of an EF1 tornado. With winds peaking at 110 mph, the twister left little standing. 

“I remember looking around and feeling numb. I think we were in shock,” she says. “There was so much devastation that we didn’t know what to do first.”

A Lifetime of Work Lost

In the Peterson family since the late 1920s, Far-Gaze Farms lost a lifetime of hard work including its entire bin site, which was a beacon for miles around. Leveled were 10 grain bins, a wet bin, four hopper bins, two grain legs, and a grain dryer. Also gone was the shop, which was fully stocked in preparation for harvest. 

Devastation after a tornado tore through a Minnesota farm
Carol Peterson

A cattle shed and hog barn were trampled. Miraculously, all of the cattle survived, but about 100 of the 230 pigs perished when the hog barn succumbed to the weight of a grain bin.

“One of the first things I was going to do was open up the hog barn, which was power ventilated, to let some fresh air in before I fired up the generator,” says Bruce, who operates Far-Gaze Farms with brothers Brian and Chris, son Sam, and nephews Tyler and John. “There were no doors to open, because the barn was leveled.”

Striking on September 20, 2018, the tornado also mowed down 3,500 acres of corn. In total, the operation sustained nearly $7 million in damages. 

The Barn that Burton Built

Amid the mangled steel and flattened buildings, one of the few structures still standing was a barn built in 1947 that was used to milk cows until 2001. The pride and joy of patriarch Burton Peterson, the building was spared when a 20×90-foot Harvestore silo stopped short of collapsing it.

“Dad loved working with cattle, and he spent a lot of time in that barn,” Bruce recalls. “Even when he was older, he’d come down and feed the cattle while I milked. When I’d get home a little late in the spring and fall because I was in the field, Dad would usually have the cows fed and ready to be milked.”

Today, the beloved barn has become a place where friends and family gather. It had hosted over 300 people for a wedding reception just three weeks before the tornado hit. 

“The barn is a kind of monument to our dad,” Brian says.

Serving as a hub after the storm, the 72-year-old structure is also a symbol of great endurance. It withstood the fury of a tornado and so will the Petersons.

“Our family is very close and very supportive of one another,” Carol says. “We would gather in the barn to talk about what we were feeling. We would cry together. We would laugh together. I think it was really important for all of us to have that family time to grieve it together.”

Group-Photo-Rebuilding-from-the Rubble
Carol Peterson

Out of Tragedy Comes Opportunity

While traumatic, the Petersons also saw the experience as an opportunity to make the farm’s layout more efficient and sized right – not only for today but also 20 years down the road. 

“With three sons returning to the farm, we had outgrown the previous setup and had already been discussing options,” Bruce says. “Because they wanted to continue farming and were eager to invest their own money into the farm’s future, there was no question we were going to rebuild.”

The third generation of Petersons would help the fourth generation redesign the future Far-Gaze Farms. Recycling as much of the wreckage as they could, the family budgeted about $6 million for the new layout. Following are some of the renovations.

• A grain dryer rated at 4,000 bushels per hour. “The dryer is something you never want to undersize, because it has a low trade-in value if you decide in five or 10 years that it’s too small,” Bruce says.

• Grain bins with 1.25 million bushels of capacity. The previous on-site storage held about 850,000 bushels. 

Huge new grain bin on a Minnesota farm
Carol Peterson

• An 80200-foot shop, which includes three offices, a conference room, and a cold storage area. “We crammed the old 60×66-foot shop into the yard, so it was tight,” Bruce says. “With the size of our equipment, we had outgrown the building. In fact, we added a lean-to on the west side for the bulk oil to gain a little more room inside.”

• A 72144-foot machine shed. “This should allow us to keep our full fleet in one area and actually get it inside at night,” Bruce says.

All of the concrete bin and building footings were ground up and recycled into fill for the new shop and machine shed. 

• On-farm fuel storage. The family still needs to rebuild its fuel containment area, which sustained considerable damage. “When the storm hit, we were going into harvest. All of the tanks were completely full of fuel,” he says. “Every single fuel pump was sheared off. I’m not quite sure why none of the fuel ignited.”

Sharing the Load

Like the debris scattered across the farm, rebuilding was spread among the entire family, so not all of the stress fell on one person. While Brian oversaw the main contractor (who had the equipment and manpower to handle such a large cleanup process), Chris, Bruce, Tyler, John, and Sam focused on harvest.

Bales of crushed metal sit in the farm yard of a Minnesota farm destroyed by a 2018 tornado
Carol Peterson

Carol, along with Brian’s wife, Mary, and Chris’s wife, Marcia, managed the meals for not only their families but also the numerous friends and neighbors who spent countless hours clearing debris, even though they, too, may have had damage to their properties. Whether it was a service truck filled with tools, a semi to load rescued animals, backhoes and skid loaders to remove rubble, or chainsaws to cut up downed trees, more than 100 volunteers contributed their equipment and their labor to the cleanup. 

“The whole situation was very overwhelming to begin with, and then to know all of these people cared enough to show up was so humbling,” Carol says. “Even now, I get emotional thinking about it, but it was such a relief to know things were being taken care of.”

Volunteers after Minnesota Tornado
Carol Peterson

Because it was such a chaotic time, the Petersons wanted to ensure they remembered who pitched in or dropped off food. A spreadsheet was created, and a personalized thank-you note went to every name on the list.

On September 20, 2019, exactly one year after that destructive day, the Petersons welcomed the many who lent a hand to the newly restored Far-Gaze Farms for a special gathering. 

“We wanted to be able to go around and visit with people one-on-one to thank them,” Bruce says. “We think that’s important.”

What Is Climate Change Doing to Minnesota Weather?

Over the past 120 years, Peter Goble, with the Colorado Climate Center, says Minnesota has warmed by an average of about 3°F. and now receives an average of 3.4 inches more precipitation per year. While those numbers may seem small, averaged over a long period of time, they are significant.

“Winters are, believe it or not, getting warmer,” Goble says. “Minnesota will continue to have snow for a long time, but we do expect that snow season to shorten as the climate continues to warm, particularly in the southern portion of the state.”

It’s also more common for rain to come in intense bursts. 

“It does follow that as the planet warms, the tornado season should increase by adding more potential days that are vulnerable to severe weather,” says Luigi Romolo, Minnesota state climatologist. “However, at this time, we’re not entirely sure what the connection is between tornadoes and climate change.”

Storm clouds in Minnesota
Carol Peterson

Not Your Typical Tornadoes

Because of how they formed and the types of storms they produced, the tornadoes that traveled across southern Minnesota on September 20, 2018, were not your typical tornadoes. 

“They were not at all like the sort you see in pictures,” says Kenneth Blumenfeld, state climatology office, Minnesota DNR. “They were almost certainly embedded within or on the leading edge of a line of strong winds and heavy rain, which made it very hard to see them.”

Most tornadoes form on the back side of isolated severe thunderstorms and are not wrapped in heavy rain, which makes them much more visible. As recently as 10 years ago, most or all of the damage from these tornadoes was assumed to have been caused by straight-line winds. 

“We now know that these smaller, shorter-lived tornadoes are much more common than we previously thought,” he says. 

The 25 tornadoes confirmed on September 20 say at least as much about the National Weather Service’s abilities to distinguish these types of tornadoes from thunderstorm winds and individual short-lived tornadoes from one another as it says about tornadoes themselves.

“It was a crazy day, and the tornadoes were about as strong as nontraditional tornadoes of this sort can be, but it’s not exactly apples to apples to compare them to more traditional tornado outbreaks,” Blumenfeld says. 

Clouds and storm in Minnesota
Carol Peterson

The Emotional Aftermath

The impact of a tornado sweeping through a community is typically measured in numbers: how many tornadoes touched down, the number of fatalities and injuries, how many buildings were destroyed, and the cost of cleanup and rebuilding. What must also be counted is the emotional toll it takes on survivors.

While weather is universal, the way people react to it is very personal. “Every family is different, but when a major blow like this occurs to the farm homestead, it is more devastating than if it occurred somewhere else,” says Michael Rosmann, a psychologist and farmer near Harlan, Iowa. “It’s partly because farmers are so attached to the land and any other assets that are needed to produce food and fiber.”

After a traumatic event like a tornado, people are more likely to experience anxiety or depression. “A tornado is an unplanned and uncontrollable event, and it is an assault on a farmer’s entire life,” Rosmann says.

While most people are resilient and bounce back on their own, others may continue to struggle. It’s important to understand what the normal responses are to a devastating event so you can cope effectively with your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.

To help restore your emotional well-being and sense of control after a natural disaster, Rosmann, along with Brenda Mack, a clinical social worker, associate professor at Bemidji State University, and wife of a third-generation farmer, offer these five tips.

1. Meet your basic needs. You should remember not only to eat healthy and drink plenty of water but also get some rest. “If you don’t get enough sleep, your thinking becomes distorted,” Rosmann says. “You take more risks and you make more mistakes.”

2. Connect with a support system. Talk with family, friends, or your pastor about your thoughts and feelings. “We’re fortunate because our family is very close and very supportive of one another,” says Carol Peterson, whose family farm was leveled in 2018 by a tornado. “After the volunteers left, we would gather to talk about what we were feeling. We would cry together. We would laugh together. I think it was really important for all of us to have that family time to grieve it together.”

3. Get in a workout. Physical exercise makes the serotonin pump, which is the chemical that boosts your mood and overall sense of well-being. 

4. Change negative self-talk to empowering self-talk. “Be aware of your negative thinking and practice reframing those messages,” Mack says. “Research has shown that focusing on the positive reduces symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression.”

5. Create a self-care plan. Mack created a personal self-care plan that builds on a framework designed by doctors Jacquelyn Lee and Shari Miller. It includes eight components (emotional activity, social activity, recreational activity, gratitude, contemplation, religious/spiritual activity, self-compassion, and physical activity). 

Recognize More Serious Symptoms

If your symptoms aren’t improving, you may have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People who suffer from PTSD may experience symptoms right away. However, others may see a delay in their onset.

“The most important point to make is that PTSD is a serious and significant mental health issue that can only be diagnosed by a qualified mental health provider,” Mack says.

Both Rosmann and Mack recommend checking local resources for  mental health and counseling services. Mack says it can also be helpful to see your primary care physician and get a physical to rule out any other causes for your symptoms. “A primary care physician is also often familiar with the mental health services in the area and can make recommendations for the patient and a referral to a provider,” she says.

As a survivor of a natural disaster, you do not need to suffer in silence. If you are having trouble dealing with a traumatic weather event, it may be time to turn to a professional for help.

5 Tips to Ensure Your Farm is Protected

As the heavy rain fell and the winds raged on September 20, 2018, Daniel Pumper found himself caught in the middle of one of the worst storms he had ever experienced. 

A Farm Bureau agent for more than 15 years, Pumper handled over 75 claims on that day. The biggest claim came from Far-Gaze Farms. Owned by the Peterson family since the early 1920s, the Northfield, Minnesota, operation was leveled right before harvest.

“The damage was pretty devastating,” says Chris Peterson. “Our biggest grain bin is 75 feet tall and weighed over 100 tons. It was probably upside down when it hit the farm shop and demolished that building. It then continued on into the main yard. The bin somersaulted into our silo and knocked that down.”

There is no denying that no one is exempt from the power of Mother Nature. Yet, when a natural disaster strikes, less than half of Americans are prepared, according to a survey by The Weather Company and Morning Consult.

To ensure your farm is properly protected, Pumper offers these five tips.

1. Review coverage yearly. “Dan forces us to have an annual sit-down and go through the policy line by line to ensure our values are current,” says Bruce Peterson. “In a time when we had a large loss like this, it was good that everything was up to date.”

2. Notify your agent of changes. “When you purchase new items or have a major life event, keep your agent informed,” Pumper says.

3. Know what is covered. “It’s important to understand the difference between replacement cost value (RCV) vs. actual cash value (ACV) coverage,” Pumper says. 

RCV guarantees you will receive the full amount necessary to replace a damaged item. ACV, on the other hand, is the amount a lost item is actually worth once depreciation is calculated. 

4. Think beyond price. Don’t just look at the price of a policy. Also look at what is included for that price.

5. Partner with an agent who understands your business. “Hiring an agent is an important decision,” Pumper says. “You want to find an agent who cares about protecting your future.”

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