Road to Recovery

Cowboy-up mentality needed to repair flood-damaged land.

The Gavilon Grain elevator, in Rockport, Missouri, was entirely cut off by floodwaters for weeks. The grain stored outside likely was ruined, Image by Jim Patrico

Nearly 40,000 people are set to converge on Rodeo Town, USA, later this month for five days of ridin’, ropin’ and buckin’ excitement.

Sidney, Iowa, a southwest Iowa town of fewer than 1,500 residents, hosts Iowa’s Championship Rodeo. It’s billed as one of the world’s largest outdoor events of its kind.

Local farmer Jeff Jorgenson and landowner Richard Payne plan to attend the 95th annual cowboy competition, or at least part of it. But, it won’t be the same good time.

The friends and business partners have more pressing issues to wrangle--namely, repairing farmland ravaged by historic spring flooding.

While watching ornery bulls try to buck off unwanted riders, Jorgenson says he’ll likely think about the repair work yet to be done and the uncertainty shrouding next year’s crop.

“We should be having fun,” Jorgenson says. “Instead, I’ll be looking ahead to 2020.

“I hope we can accomplish our goal of planting every acre and have fields back in shape by August or September,” he adds. “We’re going to have to work our tails off, and a lot of things have to happen right.”

Jorgenson and Payne are up to the daunting task. This isn’t their first rodeo when it comes to rehabilitating land marred by raging rivers.

Thousands of farmers are in the same boat. Sixteen states, from Louisiana to North Dakota, had rivers above flood stage this year, according to the National Weather Service. Catastrophic losses occurred along the Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri and other rivers.

PAST EXPERIENCE

Flooding along the Missouri River and its tributaries left behind deep ruts, tons of silt and sand, and debris in 2011, 1998, 1993 and other years. Repairs were made and farming continued.

But, nothing compares to the magnitude of this year’s disaster in Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska, locals contend.

Hundreds of thousands of acres weren’t planted due to damage and wet conditions.

“My 92-year-old grandpa, who farmed river-bottom ground forever, said he’s never seen damage like this,” Jorgenson claims. “There (are) fields with 4- to 6-foot drifts of silt and sand and scours several feet deep and wide across entire fields. It’s going to be a long road to recovery.”

Growers and government officials tasked with helping expect bumps along the way. But, optimism abounds that flood-damaged land will be restored.

Congress recently passed a $19.1-billion disaster aid package. Help includes:

> $3 billion to cover agricultural losses, including corn and soybeans ruined by flooding.

> $558 million for the Emergency Conservation Program (ECP) to help farmers and landowners repair flood-damaged land.

> $435 million for the Emergency Watershed Protection Program for rural watershed recovery.

Agricultural damages in the three states exceed $3 billion, government and ag officials agree.

Land contractors and agronomy experts contend flooded farmland can be productive again once properly cleaned and cared for.

“There’s hope,” Payne says. “You have to be optimistic to be a farmer. But, this flood is really a kick in the pants.”

THE PERFECT STORM

Heavy rains from a “bomb cyclone” and rapid snowmelt in late March overwhelmed the Missouri River and its tributaries. Frozen ground left water no place to go but into waterways.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reports about 280 miles of levees were compromised along the Missouri. More than 40 were breached and damaged.

Ferocious rushing water--more than 20 feet deep in places--washed away roads, railroad tracks, bridge embankments and valuable topsoil. Water lingered for months in many fields.

“The catastrophic damages to private property, farmland and infrastructure … gave a gut-punch to farmers suffering from five years of low commodity prices,” Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig said during a recent Senate hearing.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship estimates 147,422 acres of cropland in six southwest Iowa counties were flooded and eligible for federal cleanup assistance. About 187,000 acres were flooded in Missouri, according to the state’s Farm Bureau Federation. Six Missouri counties are eligible for ECP help. Nebraska state officials say farmers and landowners in 48 counties are eligible for cost-share help to repair flood-damaged land, but an acre estimate wasn’t available.

Farm Market iD, a farm data provider, estimated 150,000 growers and more than 16 million acres of corn, soybeans and wheat in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska were affected by the Missouri and its tributaries.

SHOCK AND AWE

All of Payne Valley Farms’ 3,000 acres, owned by Richard and his sister, Diane Muth, was under water, some of it for months. About 75% sustained severe damage and wasn’t planted.

The operation has crop-share agreements with three farmers, including Jorgenson. The partners surveyed damage to much of the 750 acres Jorgenson crops in early April.

Both were awestruck while checking out damage for the first time to a 180-acre field next to Interstate 29, located about 6 miles north of the Missouri border. They witnessed:

> water nearly covering the wheels of an irrigator

> a huge tree trunk several feet in diameter on a high point

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> topsoil that previously produced 220-bushel-plus corn and 60-bushel soybeans gone.

“I knew it would be bad, but not this bad,” Payne says. “I would say this is scour times 10. I nearly threw up on my shoes.”

“Wow,” Jorgenson replies. “I guarantee there’s 3- to 5-foot cuts under the water.”

“You’re not cheering me up, Jeff,” Payne continues.

As the partners checked out damage, they made repair plans. Communication is key to successful land reclamation projects, they agree.

This includes following Iowa State University (ISU) recommendations.

STEP-BY-STEP

Farmland can be restored to preflood condition and production levels with proper management, explains Mahdi Al-Kaisi, ISU professor of soil management/environment. Growers can expect initial yield losses on flood-damaged land, Al-Kaisi and farmers say. It takes time for the land to heal and fertility to return to normal.

“Soils are a living system,” Al-Kaisi says. “Think about it like having surgery. A person struggles even after corrective measures are taken to cure an illness or issue.

“But in a year, the person is doing great,” he continues. “The shock to the system dissipates.”

The first step to recovery is removing debris and silt and sand, and repairing erosion.
ISU recommends:

> Sand 2 to 4 inches deep can be incorporated in soil using normal field operations. Otherwise, minimum soil disturbance is advisable.

> Sand up to 6 inches deep can be plowed under to twice the depth of the sand.

> Sand 8 to 24 inches deep can be spread to areas with less sand and incorporated with special deep-tillage equipment. Don’t use sand to fill in eroded areas without proper topsoil to cover the land.

> For sand more than 24 inches deep, evaluate the cost of removing or stockpiling it.

> Topsoil from surrounding fields should be used to fill in deep cuts and eroded areas.

Jorgenson farms about 3,400 acres. About 1,200 flooded, 750 sustained damage and 500 were serious enough or dried too late to be planted.

Repairs began in earnest after planting, and work remains. The 43-year-old farmer, with the help of family and others, uses two scrapers he owns and a loader tractor to remove and redistribute silt and sand. It’s used to repair dikes or incorporated where applicable. River deposits are incorporated when needed. Jorgenson’s teenage sons remove debris with the Polaris Ranger UTV.

“It’s a long deal,” Jorgenson says. “Two to 3 inches of silt and sand is a cakewalk. We got feet in some places.”

POST-FLOOD SYNDROME

Flooded soils may experience “post-flood syndrome.” It’s similar to fallow syndrome, when land is left unplanted for an entire season.

The soil will encounter problems caused by the reduction of soil arbuscular mycorrhizae fungi colonization rates following the growing season. Unplanted fields may be affected the next season because of the absence of a root system that’s essential to maintain the microbial activity that contributes to nutrient cycling.

Several physical, biological and chemical changes also take place when soil is flooded for an extended period. This includes reduced oxidation, aggregate stability, soil structure, pH, etc.

“Be patient and let nature take its course,” Al-Kaisi says. “Proper management practices are the foundation of a speedy recovery.”

Planting a cover crop or even soybeans not intended for harvest is essential, he believes. Here’s why:

> Active root systems promote growth of microorganisms that are essential for nutrient uptake.

> Overwintering cover crops provide additional benefits of continuous growth in the spring prior to planting like nutrient sequestration.

> Plants help suppress weeds and buildup of the weed seedbank.

SOIL TEST

Nitrogen is water soluble, and phosphorus and potassium move with the soil. Al-Kaisi urges farmers to take soil samples on flooded acres to determine nutrient needs.

Test after cover crops are terminated in the late fall or spring.

“It’s so critical to get recommendations based on what farmers intend to plant,” Al-Kaisi says.

ISU soil-testing tips include:

> Test after any land leveling is done.

> Don’t collect samples immediately after soils dry.

> Allow time for phosphorus reactions in soil to occur after aeration.

> Consider that potassium deficiency can occur because of soil compaction.

> Test levels could increase from sediment deposits.

> To alleviate phosphorus deficiency, high-banded phosphorus rates are needed twice or more the normal recommended rate.


Jorgenson and Payne will clean, repair, cover, test and fertilize flood-damaged fields.

They expect 10 to 20% yield reductions next year on prevent-plant acres. That’s similar to 2012, a year after the last big flood. 2013 yields returned to normal--220-plus-bushel-per-acre corn and soybeans exceeding 60 bushels per acre.

“The fields can produce that again; we’ve seen it,” Payne explains. “It just takes time and money, and a lot of it.”

PROFESSIONAL HELP

Payne will hire tenants and contractors to clean and repair flooded property. Jorgenson will do most of his own work, though there will be areas he’ll need to a contractor with a bulldozer or excavator.

The members of the Iowa Land Improvement Contractors Association are available to help, says Scott Bohle, who serves on the board. He says professional earth movers have the experience and equipment to get jobs done efficiently.

Bohle, whose family owns Bohle Construction, in Kingsley, Iowa, has done his share of flood repair work in the past.

“The main thing is getting silt off and oxygen back to the topsoil to make it healthy and active again,” Bohle says. “The quicker you do that, the better chance to make it productive.”

Most of the time, a dozer is his workhorse of choice. The key is pushing off sand and silt without removing valuable topsoil. Contractors often use deposits to rebuild dikes to prevent future flooding, Bohle says. Or, sediment is pushed into piles or redistributed through the field to be incorporated. Silt and sand can’t be returned to the water.

Usually, entire fields aren’t covered with sediment, as it tends to collect in low-lying areas. One dozer can typically clear a couple acres per hour, Bohle explains. An average price is about $180 per hour.

“Based on past experience, it usually takes a day or two to get 20 to 30 acres of ground back into production,” he estimates.

FINANCIAL AID

For producers who own or farm thousands of acres that sustained flood damage, it’s a long and costly recovery process.

The ECP is the primary government program to restore agricultural land to predisaster conditions. It provides emergency funding and technical assistance. ECP is administered by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA) state and county offices.

“It’s the most important program to help get fields back to normal,” says Bill Northey, USDA undersecretary for farm production and conservation.

Northey toured the Missouri River Valley by ground and air shortly after the flood. The devastation was hard to fathom.

“All you could see was water,” he continues. “The piles of silt and sand, deep erosion and blown levees … just a huge amount of work needs to be done. I know some farmers will hit the program cap quick, which will be a challenge and burden.”

ECP applications are submitted by farmers and landowners at local FSA offices prior to repair work. Applicants may receive up to 75% (90% for limited-resource producers) of the cost of approved restoration activity. Cost-share payments are limited to $200,000 per person or legal entity per disaster.

Eligible practices include:

> debris removal from farmland

> grading, shaping or leveling land

> restoring fences

> restoring conservation structures.

Northey says other government programs and low-interest loans are available. States are also stepping up to help.

“The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship is working with our federal partners and Governor Kim Reynolds’ office to ensure farmers have the resources they need,” says Keely Coppess, the department’s communications director. “For example, for flooded acres that may not get planted in 2019, we’re reviewing cost-share programs for cover crops.”

Payne and Jorgenson applied for ECP in Fremont County, Iowa, shortly after the sign-up period opened on April 15. While grateful for the help, they know the money will run out quickly.

“Two fields will probably exhaust my funding,” Payne says. “There (are) millions of dollars of damage.”

“The reality is we get done what we can get done,” Jorgenson adds. “You invest the money to get the most done and try to get ready for 2020.”

Additional Resources:

The USDA National Resources Conservation Service provides technical and financial assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and other programs to help producers recover
and build resilience to better weather future disasters. Visit bit.ly/2WCLRdm for more.

Producers located in counties receiving a primary or contiguous disaster designation are eligible for low-interest emergency loans. Visit bit.ly/21jnT4r to help recover from production and physical losses.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

> Visit USDA’s https://www.farmers.gov/… to learn more about disaster preparedness and response.

> Follow Matthew on Twitter: @progressivwilde.

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