OMAHA, Neb. — As the Missouri River slowly recedes, farmers seeing their fields for the first time since June are encountering sand dunes, strange debris and deep gouges the floodwaters carved into their once-fertile land.
The soil quality has also been diminished because the floodwaters killed off many of the microbes that help crops grow and compacted the soil.
Officials don't expect the Missouri to fully return to its banks until October, so farmers already busy with the fall harvest will have little time to rehab their fields before the onset of winter. Plus, farmers must wait for fields to dry before doing any significant work with heavy equipment.
That means many of the hundreds of thousands of acres of flooded farmland along the Missouri River in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri might be out of production for at least a year — if not longer.
"It's going to take many years to get this land back in shape for production," said Scott Olson, who farms near Tekamah, Neb., and had about 500 acres under water all summer.
Olson said in one of his fields, floodwaters carved out a new ditch that's about 300 feet wide, one-quarter mile long and more than 15-feet deep.
Olson has a pilot's license and spent much of the summer tracking flooding in Nebraska and Iowa from the air. The damage he saw and pictures he posted on the website of his family's equipment business, leevalley.net, are striking.
"Anything that the water flowed across has done a lot of damage," Olson said.
The flooding is a byproduct of unexpectedly heavy spring rains in the Upper Plains and above-average snowpack. The spring deluge prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to release massive amounts of water from the dams along the Missouri River all summer.
Experts in the region said some farmers will find severe damage.
"There's going to be parts of fields that may never be farmed again or won't be farmed for a couple years," said Clarke McGrath, agronomist with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Besides sand and debris, farmers will have to deal with "flooded field syndrome."
Any time water stands on a field for more than a couple days, McGrath said the soil starts to stagnate because of the lost microbes and the weight of the water.
McGrath and other experts said farmers might need to allow weeds to grow on the land or plant a cover crop, such as winter wheat, to get roots back in the soil and help microbes grow. Without doing that, there's a risk that whatever crop is planted on the land won't perform well.
Although the river has dropped dramatically, some land still looks like lakes or river channels. Elsewhere, dry land is littered with boat docks and crumbling homes that floated down from upstream.
Floodwaters swept several feet of soil away from some fields and deposited huge mounds of sand elsewhere.
"It looks like snow drifts," Rob Chatt said about the sand piled 3 to 5 feet deep in his fields north of Herman, Neb. But Chatt's sand drifts won't melt away, so he'll have to use a bulldozer to clear them out.
Chatt said he tried to get a head start on rehabbing the soil by planting rye seed on his fields from an airplane. He hopes enough will sprout to help his fields and give his cattle something to graze on this winter.
Shawn Shouse, an Iowa State University agricultural engineer, said farmers will need to spread out or remove any sand deposits deeper than 8 inches before trying to till or plant the land. Otherwise, parts of their fields will remain sandy and won't retain the moisture crops need to survive summer on the Plains.
Shouse expects most flood-damaged fields can eventually be cleaned up and repaired, but some places will require expensive, time-consuming work. Shouse estimated that badly damaged fields could cost $1,000 or more per acre to repair, while repairs to mild damage might cost roughly $100 to $200 per acre.
"There will probably be some cases of abandoning areas," Shouse said.
On Cliff Morrow's farm near Tekamah, more than half of his family's 1,000 acres have been under water all summer, but the land has started to emerge.
Morrow said that he already knows that in one field, he has about 40 acres of bad erosion damage, but it has been too wet to do anything about it. The field is marked by deep ruts and much of the soil is washed away.
"I think most of it will go back into production, but it remains to be seen what kind of production," Morrow said.
Near Fort Calhoun, Neb., Kelli Shaner and her family still haven't been able to visit the home they abandoned in June before floodwaters covered about 80 percent of their farmland.
Shaner said she's been able to see a major sandbar in the middle of one field and lots of debris, including propane tanks and chunks of cabins that floated downriver. But she said it's hard to plan for the unknown.
"We don't know until the water recedes what it's going to look like or what it's going to take," Shaner said.
A few miles south, about 20 percent of Clare Duda's land just north of Omaha remains covered by floodwaters. Duda still has to don a pair of hip waders to visit his 500 acres of cropland, but the fact that the water is only about waist-deep is an improvement.
Duda said he won't be able to start dealing with any of the damage until the river returns to its channel.
"There's a lot of ground we won't be able to touch this year," Duda said.