Midwest Farmers Suffer After Floods: ‘I Got My Life in This Ground’

By: - April 16, 2019 12:00 am

WHITE CLOUD, Kan.—From the top of a lookout point on a clear day here, Joe Keithley could see the Missouri River spill over its banks into three states: Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. Underwater farmland stretched to the horizon in all directions. He used binoculars to zoom in on 1,700 acres of his family farm in Missouri.

“Looks like one of our grain bins is tipped over,” said Keithley, 57. “Damn it,” he muttered under his breath.

Midwestern states have been battered with intensive flooding since mid-March. Rain and warm temperatures melted the snow from an unseasonably cold and snowy winter in some areas, but the frozen ground couldn’t soak up the water.

The wet weather overwhelmed the Missouri River and its tributaries that run like vines through the Midwest and Plains. Levies cracked open, and bloated waterways pushed out into the river bottoms.

Blocks of ice bigger than pickup trucks jammed the downstream system, cutting up roads and the approaches to bridges. Similar conditions caused flooding from Minnesota down to Louisiana along the Mississippi River.

And as farmers and rural residents worried, lawmakers in statehouses around the Midwest began to wrestle, again, with funding and policies to address the disaster. Intensive flooding will continue to happen, and states will have to figure out what to do about it. 

Farmers see the year-over-year changes in climate that have resulted in unusual seasonal changes and extreme weather. The issue is only starting to be acknowledged by states such as Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri that will have to act fast, though they haven’t worked out exactly how yet.

Declaring emergency conditions, the governors of Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska have committed to working together to develop regional solutions to recovery and levee repairs, and to lobby for changes in the federal government’s management of the Missouri River to prioritize flood control and communities.

Affected states report severe damage, especially to agriculture. Iowa may see upwards of billion in state losses, according to the Iowa Farm Bureau, while Nebraska has reported more than billion.

The losses include livestock, crops, repairs to state infrastructure and cleanup, plus lost buildings, homes and farm machinery. Until the waters subside, no one will know the full costs.

Legislatures are debating what to do next. Some Iowa state lawmakers said they’re ready to craft legislation to provide state funding to affected Iowans, but they’re letting GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds and federal officials take the lead.

In Missouri, in an effort to discourage future high-risk infrastructure, the legislature is considering a bill to eliminate tax incentives to development projects in Federal Emergency Management Agency-designated flood plains.

In Nebraska, the legislature is working to identify funding options to help state residents, but the possibilities depend on the type of support communities need, and damage assessments are still uncertain.

The legislature last week adopted an amendment to provide a property tax break to people whose homes were destroyed, despite concerns the move could eliminate any given small community’s tax base.

“It’s going to be a long recovery process,” said Nebraska Sen. Julie Slama, a Republican whose district includes flooded areas west of the Missouri River. “But right now, as a state, we’re taking the steps.”

Farmers meanwhile must calculate what to do in the coming weeks. Flooded farmland isn’t expected to recede in time for many affected farmers to plant a crop this season, so they may lose a year of income.

For fifth-generation farmers like Keithley, decades of family history are tied up with the land they farm in Missouri and Nebraska. They have millions of dollars invested. They can’t just walk away, even when they face an uncertain future.

“I got my life in this ground,” said Keithley’s brother Jeff, 59, while standing in front of an old John Deere tractor on the family’s land in Nebraska. “I spent my life here. It’s almost an extension of me. I raised all my children here.”

Brett Adams, another fifth-generation farmer who works land in Nebraska and Missouri, recently sat in his white pickup overlooking million-dollar damage across most of his couple-thousand acres in Peru, Nebraska, and across the river.

“It’s hard to look at sometimes, to figure out what I’m going to do,” said Adams, 39. “There’s times where I don’t really know. It’s not like I can sell it and move on. Who wants to buy a lake right now?”

He noted that farmers already have been hurt by low prices for their crops. Farmers have been reeling further from the Trump administration’s trade war with China, which retaliated last year by raising tariffs on U.S. soybeans.

“This is really going to hurt a lot of farmers,” Adams said of the floods. “Commodity prices are already low, and then you throw this on top of it. And it’s a bad deal. I mean, a really, really, really bad deal.”

‘It Just Blows Your Mind’

Countless levees along the Missouri River have holes. Any time the river goes up, the water will go right back in the fields. “It’s like having a fort with no wall,” said Eric Bohl, director of public affairs and advocacy for the Missouri Farm Bureau.

Driving around eastern Nebraska, Keithley and Gary Lesoing, an educator with the University of Nebraska Extension office in Nemaha County, reached a high point on Highway 159 with a clear view of flooding between Rulo, Nebraska, and Fortescue, Missouri, home of Keithley’s Missouri farm. Miles of farmland were once dotted with modest homes.

“See the water?” Keithley asked. 

“It just blows your mind,” Lesoing said.

They hopped in the pickup of Brian Kirkendall, director of the Emergency Management Agency for Richardson County, Nebraska, to drive around a barricade and cross the bridge to a devastated area residents haven’t been able to access.

Missouri and Nebraska had about 150 levee breaches, including three in Richardson County, Kirkendall said.

Rocks from a nearby train bed, corn stalks, a fuel bin and uprooted trees littered the road, which was thin and cracked at the edges. An empty fuel bin, barbecue grill and abandoned RV comingled with fallen trees in the flood waters. Geese swam near the murky water’s edge. The air smelled like chicken manure. In the distance, Keithley spotted a flooded tractor on another farmer’s land.

They drove until they reached a 100-foot stretch of road that had blown out, disconnecting the towns of Rulo and Fortescue.

Some farmers said they’re reluctant to plant not knowing whether the water is going to creep up again. Historic crests in the river often arrive in June because of snowmelt from the mountains, according to reports from the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Weather Service.

Some losses farmers can account for. They may know how many bushels of grain spilled out on the ground, how many grain bins they need to replace, how much it’ll cost to fix water-damaged center pivot irrigations.

But they don’t know what’s underneath all that water. Did the current cut a ditch or a huge channel across the field? Did it deposit sand after it cut a channel? They could have farmland that’s ruined or land that costs several hundred thousand dollars just to get a patch back into production. Every affected farmer faces different unknowns.

“You may not have had livestock before, but now you have someone else’s unfortunate dead cow on your property,” said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union. “It’s just the luck of how the water settles out.”

Farmers will also have to spend at least this season preparing their land to plant a crop again.

Trey Garst, another fifth-generation farmer, watched heavy wind slap floodwater against eroded land on his 2,800-acre family farm in Watson, Missouri, population 40.

He called for his dog Ella to try to stop her from getting in the water that covered nearly all of it. Because of a flooded wastewater treatment plant, Omaha’s raw sewage had been dumped into a creek that runs into the Missouri River.

“If there’s one reason you don’t want to touch that water, that would be it,” said Garst, 26.

When Garst wasn’t looking, Ella splashed along the edge.

Financial Help

Bohl and other advocates say they want Congress to pass a disaster appropriations bill that would provide for agricultural flood damage, including coverage for stored grain damaged by the flooding.

The American Farm Bureau supports the House version of the bill, which includes billion for farm disaster assistance administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, million for a program that develops community facilities in rural areas, and million for the Emergency Conservation Program, which provides financial assistance for cleaning a field.

Farmers have been storing grain for several years in anticipation of better prices because of productive harvests and a trade war that’s compounded six years of low commodity prices. Neither USDA disaster programs nor insurance policies cover stored grain.

Partisan gridlock over additional aid to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico kept Congress from passing a disaster relief bill before going on a two-week recess until April 29.

Some USDA programs and insurance policies can help, such as the USDA Farm Service Agency’s Emergency Conservation Program. The Livestock Indemnity Program helps livestock producers recover a portion of the value of livestock.

But experts predict the disaster will drive out of business farmers ill-equipped to absorb some of the losses.

“The big one at the end is the replacement cost,” Hansen said. “If you didn’t have insurance, and you’re already struggling financially, are you going to be able to go to the bank and borrow that much money to replace all this stuff? Are you in a place in your life that you can take on that much debt? There’s a lot of tough decisions to be made.”

Meanwhile, individuals and organizations across the country are chipping in.

The University of Nebraska is developing a service program to pair 50 skilled students with the highest needs of affected areas across the state this summer.

For example, engineering students may help assess roads and bridges; nutrition students may help with family nutrition, said Kathleen Lodl, associate dean and 4-H program administrator with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension.

Farm Aid created a disaster fund and is working with local partners to distribute checks to affected farmers. The Nebraska Farm Bureau has raised more than million.

Neighbors also pitched in. Before the flooding, the Keithley brothers removed machines and grain from the Missouri farm with the help of neighbors, friends and 25 semitrucks making five trips over three days to haul 140 loads to Kansas City and St. Joseph, Missouri, and Atchison, Kansas. “It was like a basketball team,” Jeff Keithley said.

Lesoing, the extension educator, said he received a call from a guy near New Orleans who wanted to drive up and help with recovery efforts because of the country’s outpouring in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. He plans to travel with his family over Easter, Lesoing said.

In Lincoln, promoter Dustin Hunke, who goes by “Duff,” organized a “Flood Fest” fundraiser after the flooding destroyed his hometown of Fremont, Nebraska, about an hour north of Lincoln and along the Platte River. Proceeds went to United Way for distribution.

Local indie bands played staggered 30-minute sets at Duffy’s Tavern and across the street at Bourbon Theatre just below the university campus. Too busy with work, Hunke hadn’t been back to Fremont yet. On a drizzly Saturday night, amid the bands and draft beers, the devastation felt distant.

“There’s a disconnect even for me,” Hunke said. “It’s not real until you see it.”

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April Simpson

April Simpson reports on rural issues at Stateline. Before joining Pew, Simpson was associate editor of Current, where she covered public broadcasting and nonprofit media.