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Resilient Farmers Face Flood Aftermath
One hundred and twenty days after the Missouri River left its banks, Nic Shearer of rural Hamburg, Iowa, is hauling grain and watching his corn grow on the hillside.
Those are farm activities that in any other July would seem normal. But not this year.
“The bottom ground we farm is just now without water on it,” says Shearer. He custom farms about 1,000 acres of the once-flooded ground. “It’s overgrown with weeds and covered in debris.” This is Shearer’s first time dealing with the after effects of massive flooding. He’s not sure what comes next, but he knows it will be a long process.
He’s heard stories of the 2011 floods and the headaches that came for months, years, when farmers were given few options for sand and debris removal. “We don’t have much sand on our land, but others do,” says Shearer. “Those next to the river are in exceptionally bad shape.” In 2011, farmers desperate to get at the farm ground pushed the sand into a pile and farmed around it. Shearer hopes there are better solutions this time.
“They’re telling us to get something, anything in the ground,” he says, hoping to plant a cover crop by mid-August, the usual time for winter cover to go in. “So we will have something on the ground for fall and winter. Then we will kill it in the spring just before planting like we usually do.”
Hopefully, he adds, they won’t be flooded again next year.
Shearer knows the value of plants in the ground. He has used cover crops for the past four years. Unlike many farmers in the area, Shearer has around 1,000 acres of corn and beans on high ground, where the cover helped reduce erosion in this year’s heavy rains.
But flooded ground comes with its own challenges. With the soil deprived of oxygen, life ceases to exist. Having no plants on which to feed, symbiotic fungi, which pass nutrients to plants while absorbing carbohydrates, are lost. The entire soil life system has to be re-established. Cover crops add organic matter to the soil while stimulating microbial and fungal activity.
Shearer’s bottom ground sets just south of the Missouri-Iowa line, where Missouri flood recovery measures apply. The Missouri Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has made $1 million in additional EQIP funds available to assist with cover crop planting on flooded ground.
The USDA has lightened rules pertaining to planting cover crops on Prevent Planting acres under Federal Crop Insurance, giving some farmers more options. Those who typically plant cover crops in the fall will likely try to get a crop in earlier this summer.
There are bureaucratic deadlines and stipulations to both programs.
But Shearer says getting the cover crop in will help, now that he can get to his farm ground, unlike some of his friends and neighbors.
“There are people who still can’t get to their farmhouse and fields,” says Shearer. “Even where the water is down, you can now see where a road used to be. They will have to be rebuilt, and the county was already over-budget on road funds after the hard winter.” Local roads are typically funded primarily by county dollars.
The Iowa Department of Transportation immediately released $9 million in Emergency Relief funds from the Federal Highway Administration for flood damage. That money was earmarked for essential traffic and further damage prevention, a down payment of sorts on the expected $90 million in needed repairs. The cost to repair Interstate 29 alone is around $40 million.
Recovery is hard, dangerous work
Shearer, like many, is trying to remove contaminated grain still in damaged grain bins – not an easy task with flood-damaged bin unloading systems and wet, heavy, moldy grain. The grain cannot be fed or sold, not even for ethanol.
“We thought we could get use out of some of the corn above the water line where the water only reached 5 or 6 feet,” says Shearer, “but we found out just today it’s a 100% loss.”
Again, at least Shearer can get to his.
For those still not able to access their flooded farm, dangers await. Farms come with inherent hazards – machinery and equipment, electrical components, chemicals, rodents. When co-mingled by contaminated floodwaters, unsound physical structures and animal carcasses are only part of the problem.
Grain still awaiting removal also poses concerns. With a 100-plus degree heat wave hitting the Midwest, combustibility is a potential problem.
Shearer has decisions to make going forward: “Do we put the bins back on the bottom ground? Do we change up our marketing strategy to sell the grain right out of the field instead of storing?”
What will that marketing change do to his bottom line with commodity prices low and international markets uncertain? How much will it cost to rebuild the bins, now that steel prices have risen 20% or more due to trade war tariffs?
“We’re working through all of that now,” says Shearer.
And is anyone fixing the underlying problem?
“We’re sitting here now with no protection,” says Shearer. As many as 50 levee breaches were reported in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Omaha District alone, the river remains high, and summer rains can be heavy. “The Corps of Engineers says it will be up to three years before the levee system is returned to where it was before the flood.”
Putting things back like they were before the flood is not what Shearer would like to see. Concerns continue to swirl around the river management that may have contributed to the flooding. Midwest Governors have demanded more of a say in flood management priorities, with Missouri Governor Mike Parsons going on record as requesting flood control make the top of that list.
So, Shearer waits. He tries to make decisions as best he can with so many unknowns; too many even by farming standards. He hopes he can salvage some of the loss to the soil at least.
And he looks to the hills, where the crops are looking good despite the late planting brought on by the relentless spring rains.
If all goes well between now and harvest, Nic Shearer will likely live to farm another year. Others are not so lucky.