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The Recovery Begins on Flooded Iowa Farms

Nic Shearer of Hamburg, Iowa, now gets up each day ready to face the very real, physical problems left in the floodwater’s wake.

In many ways, Shearer is one of the lucky ones. He had a couple of days notice to move equipment out of the river’s path. Much of his farmland, along with a machine shop, is on high ground. He doesn’t have livestock. And he is part of a community that has redefined “help your neighbor.”

But that’s just about where his luck ends.

Shearer faces a long road of challenges before he can even dream of normal.

“We have neighbors who have every single acre they farm still under water, with more flooding likely to come,” says Shearer. “This is going to take a very long time.”

Shearer custom-farms bottom ground for an older landowner who was not able to get his 2018 crop out of grain bins before the floods came. “Three grain bins, maybe four, have exploded,” says Shearer. With roads to the area washed out, he’s not sure when he'll be able to get to the bins. He is also unsure how to clean it up.

It’s now contaminated grain. Those with livestock have been told not to feed it. Shearer can’t sell his, not even to the local ethanol plant.

“That’s where we’ve always been able to sell contaminated corn,” says Shearer. “But we’ve been told they can’t take it.” He says the officials are lagging behind with crucial information. “We’re just not sure yet what we can and can’t do.”

According to Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, stored grain damaged by floodwaters cannot be sold or fed, meaning a direct loss for most farmers. Some individual insurance policies may cover part of the loss.

Good grain sitting more than 1 foot above the flood line can be fed and sold with specific case-by-case FDA approval. Farmers are to contact their local Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for the best way to dispose of damaged grain in their area.

Shearer is hoping to have answers by the time the roads are open to get to the bins, but he hasn’t heard anything yet.

Only one of the problems

Some farmers are dealing with contaminated hay, as well. Hay that has been damaged is susceptible to combustion and must be closely monitored. The experts recommend having the local fire department on hand as it is moved, as moving it can accentuate the problem. In small communities like Hamburg, that fire department is volunteer; each member has his or her own flood-related issues to deal with.

Once grain is removed, farmers like Shearer will have to deal with bin structural damage. Even structures that appear to survive must be inspected for sheared bolts, elongated holes, misaligned doors, and shifted foundations. All electrical components are suspect. Erosion caused by the flood may have exposed buried utility lines, creating additional danger.

Shearer had a storage building take in around 10 feet of water. He was lucky to get the machinery out in time, but he hasn’t been able yet to inspect the structure.

Everything will need to be cleaned and disinfected. Wood structures may retain mold. The experts advise keeping good records and using a third-party inspection service, part of the ongoing postcatrastophy bureaucratic workload.

Flood damage across the Midwest is expected to top $3 billion, with ag losses in Iowa alone estimated at $214 million. That amounts to a lot of visits to the FSA office, inspections by the DNR and EPA, and visits to the bank. Farm bankruptcies were already on the rise throughout the Midwest after years of low commodity prices and fallout from the trade war. Some farmers won’t survive to farm another year.

Farm ground trauma

For those who do, planting season is almost here. Or at least it should be.

But ground that is still under water won’t likely see a 2019 crop. The raging river will leave behind debris, silt, and ultrafine blow sand that will all have to be physically removed. The debris can range from driftwood and rocks to dangerous glass and sharp metal. It’s easy for Shearer to compare the damage to the massive Missouri River flooding of 2011, the most recent catastrophic flood event in the area. “It took a long time to decide what to do with the sand,” says Shearer. “Some of it sat around for a couple of years.” He’s heard talk that officials are lining up contractors to deal with the problem.

Like any living thing, soil requires oxygen, and denying it creates a deadly blow. Experts advise getting something, anything, growing in the soil as soon as possible to begin to restore life.

Shearer has little hope of planting a traditional crop on the bottom ground this year, but is hoping he may get a cover crop in by June. “That way there will be something happening in the soil. It will be a long process. I know many people who have land that was just beginning to recover from 2011.

“Then again, we wonder will we plant at all,” adds Shearer. There are around 20 levy breeches between Council Bluffs and the Missouri state line. “We have no idea when they will be fixed, so more flooding is likely.”

Ongoing issues

There isn’t much faith in how the levies will be fixed. Hamburg has been at the center of a controversy over levy construction since the 2011 flood, when the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers revised a local plan and lowered a crucial levy. Shearer and his neighbors look at the result of that daily. “Senator Grassley and others have assured us this time the locals will be involved and they will listen to us,” says Shearer. Some have even offered their dirt for the cause. “We want it fixed and fixed right.”

Like the levies, any on-farm conservation structures like terraces will need to be inspected for damage. Any personal well that was underwater must be inspected and tested before it can be used.

For those with livestock, there is carcass disposal to tackle. The number of animals lost is still being tallied. The floodwaters tore through hog and poultry barns, beef feedlots, and hit in the midst of the Midwest calving season.

Shearer still can’t find a road he can legally drive on. Local residents are allowed limited access to Interstate 29, allowing for a much longer-than-normal drive to get groceries and other supplies, but no way to navigate the local area.

Moving on

For now, Shearer is looking to the hills. He’s gearing up for planting on his high ground, and hoping his 1,000 acres in its fourth year of cover crop rotation has been at least somewhat protected from the worst of the erosion caused by heavy rains on frozen soil.

His shop is also on high ground, so he is able to prepare his machinery for the task, though he has offered it to neighbors, as well. “Many of them lost theirs,” he says, “so we have three times the equipment in there now.”

Shearer says neighbor helping neighbor is how the small town of just over 1,000 survived. “The way the community came together is amazing. One half of the town was under water. But people didn’t wait, they dropped their own needs to help others.” Even the city workers abandoned the city’s equipment and needs to tend to individuals in trouble. “That may mean additional cost down the road, but people won’t complain a bit.”

There are signs of normalcy returning – sort of. The hospital never closed, but it took an emergency FEMA well to provide running water. The elementary school now has running water, as well. But sewers remain an issue. Hospital employees and school kids are using portable toilets.

The school gym remains filled with donated items where anyone in town can just go get what they need.

“The worst thing now is juggling the timing,” says Shearer. “It’s spring, and we’re busy. And we’re still looking at a lot of unknowns.”

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