SIDNEY, Iowa (DTN) -- Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig met with USDA officials from different agencies and local farmers Friday at the Silver Spur Bar & Grill but took his burger to go as everybody piled into trucks to see what the levees look like.
A year ago this week, a bomb cyclone hit as a surge of warm air from the Gulf of Mexico rolled into the central Plains and Midwest, causing a mix of snow, intense rainfall and snow melt that quickly ran off into rivers and streams. Dozens of towns and cities in Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa were quickly flooded, and within days, levees along the Missouri River were overwhelmed. Some flooded areas did not see water recede until last December, and water releases by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are still nearly three times their normal levels.
Naig brought several USDA officials on Friday to see the flood recovery in southwest Iowa. While the state's Farm Service Agency was there and staff from the Natural Resources Conservation Service joined the tour, the real audience to highlight levee repairs was the regional director for USDA's Risk Management Agency -- the guys who rate crop insurance risk.
"One of the reasons we are so focused on understanding what happens with the levees is because it has a direct impact on crop insurance rates that farmers will pay," Naig said. "That's very much on the minds of our local farmers."
RMA has tried to make some adjustments for levee repairs. Speaking to DTN at the USDA Ag Outlook Forum, RMA Director Martin Barbre said the agency is having weekly conversations with the Army Corps of Engineers on levee repairs.
"We're constantly talking with them, and they are keeping us updated," Barbre told DTN on Feb. 22.
Historically, RMA's provisions stated if you are in the area of a breached levee and it did not get built back to earlier specifications, then farmers immediately protected by that levee would get the highest-risk rate in the county for that land. RMA has changed those provisions to look at elevation "and do some things to see if we can mitigate that premium," Barbre said.
"That's what we're doing this year, as best we can," he said. "I wouldn't call it an exact science, but I think it will help mitigate a lot of producers."
Naig noted some of the questions Friday were just how flexible RMA can be for rating risk and setting final rates.
"This is a constantly changing situation, too, because that levee repair is ongoing," Naig said. "So really what we are looking at by mid-April is what is the status of those levees, and then what are we looking at for crop insurance?"
RMA is expected to release some maps this week to show the current status. The agency will be looking at repairs and updating the high-risk-land maps, and there could be some flexibility to adjust rates before premiums are actually due in August.
"As these repairs get done and as things change, we can restore the land back to the rate it was previously," said Duane Voy, RMA's regional director out of St. Paul, Minnesota, who participated in Friday's tour.
The closing sales date for crop insurance is March 15, and the earliest planting dates in Iowa are April 11 for corn and April 21 for soybeans. In northwest Missouri, early planting for corn is April 5, and in southeast Nebraska, it is April 10.
Ruth Gerdes of Auburn (Nebraska) Agency Crop Insurance, who often isn't shy about criticizing RMA, credited the agency's work with staff, listening about what is happening on the ground.
"I think everything possible is being done to give the farmer the opportunity to get back to a regular rate," Gerdes said. She noted Monday she was actually on a call Saturday with RMA staff. "That shows they are really doing their darndest to be responsive."
Iowa and Missouri farmers are fortunate that their levees protect not only their farm ground, but also Interstate 29 and a Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line. That has given them some repair priority.
That is not the case so much for farmers protected by a levee from Peru, Nebraska, extending north along the river bottom. More than six miles of that levee has not been repaired, likely leaving farmers of more than 8,000 acres facing high-risk insurance designations. Local officials in Peru are worried that their community could still be exposed to flooding this year because of those breaches.
FIELD CONDITIONS IMPROVED
While parts of the upper Missouri River Valley in North Dakota and South Dakota remain saturated, that isn't the case in southwest Iowa. Moisture has been limited and farmers have been in the fields trying to remove debris and till in grasses that came up when flood waters receded.
"We are just so much farther along than anyone would have anticipated for the Corps and the farmers," said Jeff Jorgenson, a Sidney, Iowa, farmer and president-elect of the Iowa Soybean Association. "The weather really has cooperated. We will be prepared for a normal planting window. It honestly could not be any better right now for Missouri River bottom farmers in terms of weather and conditions."
Farmers in the area were anxious to show RMA the protection levels that ideally will help lower their insurance costs as they return to the fields this year. While prevented-planting payments and disaster aid helped support them in 2019, they emphasized their desire to get a crop in the ground this spring.
"We heard there is some room for adjustment, so that makes me feel good," David Lueth, a Fremont County farmer. "We're going to be like horses at the gate ready to run a race because we are just excited to get out and plant this year."
Part of the tour included levee L-575 and the Benton-Washington Levee District, where the Corps has installed 2,500 feet of metal sheet piling going 50 feet into the bedrock and supported with rock and clay along the levee that will be sealed with concrete then more clay once completed.
"This is a substantial effort on the Corps' part to help farmers with crop insurance protection," said Pat Sheldon, president of the levee district.
John Askew, a farmer in Fremont County who also was a former EPA Region 7 director under the last Bush administration, also expressed similar confidence with the work just north on levee L-594. There, the Corps could not effectively get to the ground until late December, but crews have been working frantically since then to rebuild and modify the levee in spots where breaches were more than 500 feet across.
Around a couple of key breaks in the old levee, the Corps has built an extended horseshow with extended, widened seepage berms on each side of the new construction, making a wider levee at the old breach.
"We have gotten to a place that is going to keep the river back this spring," Askew said. "I fully believe this is going to hold even with higher levels (of water)."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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