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Farmers still have more questions than answers when it comes to Missouri River flooding

Article cover photo
As water levels recede farmers and county officials are discovering extreme damage to infrastructure and fields. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Joseph L. Murphy, ISA senior communications manager

As farmers enter the fields to prepare for the 2019 growing season many acres are expected to lie fallow along the Missouri River. That is the harsh reality for farmers like Jeff Jorgenson as they assess the damage caused by historic flooding.

“We’re already looking at prevented planting and it is only April 9,” said Jorgenson, district 7 director for the Iowa Soybean Association, while looking over fields littered with debris. "There are serious questions down here. We are wondering if the Corps [United States Army Corps of Engineers] will be able to repair breached levees. Water is expected to flow into the area until at least mid-May.”

Producers in the area have been attending informational meetings conducted by various government entities but all have said there are still more questions than answers.

"We mistakenly thought 2011 was bad," said Richard Payne, a landowner near Percival and one of Jorgenson's landlords. "This is a lot worse. I’m just about ill."

The Army Corps of Engineers released initial assessments of damage to the levee system along the Missouri River during a community meeting earlier this week. According to officials, 70 miles of levees were damaged and some estimates place repair costs at $5 million per mile to restore levees to their original condition. That amount doesn't include the cost to repair more than 36 breaches.

"The reality is we still have water in-flow here," Jorgenson said, three weeks after floodwaters inundated the area. "That makes it difficult to plan the 2019 and even the 2020 crop if the levees aren't repaired."

In a Malvern meeting last week Corps officials said a bidding process needs to take place for breached levee repair contracts. Then equipment will need to be mobilized, possibly from Louisiana, before dredging and repair work could begin. At the earliest, he fears, it could be mid-May before the most crucial of levees can be plugged.

Farm-to-market roads, bridges, railroad tracks and Interstate 29 all took serious hits as a result of the Missouri River flash flooding. Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, said there isn't a quick fix for those losses.

"It’s had a really negative impact on the industry," Steenhoek said. "I don’t know of a rural bridge, a rural road or frankly any mode of transportation that has a happy coexistence with flooding conditions."

He said the damage to county roads and bridges put pressure on budgets that are already stressed. Combined with the uncertainty of continued flooding he fears that engineers could be more hesitant to fix some of the roads in the near term.

"I think this challenge could manifest for a long period of time," Steenhoek said. "This is the level of government that has the least amount of money. Their ability to make these types of investments is already constricted."

Jeff Jorgenson inspects a grain bin filled with soybeans that was damaged by Missouri River flood waters. Many farmers are attempting to salvage as much of the grain as possible. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

He added that investment in transportation infrastructure in the flooded areas would impact the bottom line of the farmers who work in that area.

"For farmers, there is the impact to their fields. But there are a lot of farmers who chose to store their crops in hopes of having a more favorable climate to market their grain. Now, all of a sudden you have washed out bridges and other crumbling infrastructure that is less capable of accommodating those deliveries,” he said.

A path forward

As the flood waters recede in some areas and government officials plan ways to regain control of the levees and transportation systems, Jorgenson and other farmers are determined to push forward.

"With this situation, you have to start putting things in the rearview mirror," he said. "You can’t look back at it and wish you would’ve done something differently. You are living in the now. You have to put some of this to bed because the next thing is coming and things are coming all the time."

For Jorgenson, that means starting fieldwork on the ground he farms east of Sidney, which was not impacted by the flooding. On Tuesday he started working the soil on his other 2,200 acres in preparation for planting. For now, his 750 acres in the Missouri River valley will have to wait.

"It’s not easy to figure out the plan of attack," Jorgenson said. "I have areas I can’t plan for because it still has water on it or the channel is still essentially running water through the field. We might not know until the first part of May.”

Once the water has receded and the soil has dried Jorgenson plans on repairing the fields, smoothing out the eroded areas and planting a cover crop to reduce soil erosion.

Other farmers in the area are still tallying up their losses and devising a plan of action for grain stored in flooded bins. In Fremont County and Mills County, about 760,000 bushels of uninsured soybeans in flood-damaged grain bins could be lost. The floods impacted approximately 3.8 million bushels of corn stored in grain bins. 

Working together

Throughout the process, Jorgenson said he had candid discussions with his landlord.

"You tell it like it is," he said. "We have to work together in this thing and we always have. We get very black and white. It isn’t good and we both know it."

Payne, Jorgenson's landlord, owns 2,800 acres in the Missouri River Valley that were impacted by the flood.

"I have probably a million dollar field that I don’t even know where to start to try and repair it," Payne said. "The losses are unbelievable."

Payne's biggest fear is that his crop insurance premiums will skyrocket next year because of the breached levee system. "Preventive planting is not exciting but you can probably live to fight again," Payne said of the current situation. "I don’t know if we can get this fixed in a year. This is so much worse than in 2011."

   

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship has a comprehensive list of additional local, state and federal resources here: https://iowaagriculture.gov/news/resources-flooding

Contact Joe Murphy at jmurphy@iasoybeans.com.

For media inquiries, please contact Katie Johnson, ISA Public Relations Manager at kjohnson@iasoybeans.com or Aaron Putze, ISA Communications Director at aputze@iasoybeans.com

For permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos contact Aaron Putze at aputze@iasoybeans.com. Iowa Soybean Association | 1255 SW Prairie Trail Pkwy | Ankeny | IA | 50023 | US

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