BIG LAKE — After months of brutal flooding along the Missouri River, farmers are making their final push to repair their land and construction crews are rushing to fix levees as the spring planting season gets under way.
The Missouri River rose to record levels last year after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began releasing massive amounts of water from upstream reservoirs that had been inundated with melting snow and heavy rains. The onslaught lasted for more than 100 days, busting levees, carving gouges up to 50 feet deep and dumping tree limbs, pieces of children's swing sets, gas cans and other debris on farmers' fields.
"The worst part of it was getting back and seeing the devastation and dealing with the devastation, cleaning up the houses, cleaning up the buildings, dealing with the debris in the fields and removing the sand," said Leo Ettleman, 57, of Percival, Iowa, who saw about 1,700 of the 2,500 acres he farms flooded last year when a federal levee broke.
So much sand was left behind that some farmland resembles a desert, complete with sand storms that have been filling in drainage ditches and leaving irrigation systems partially buried. Once plants sprout, there is a risk of blowing sand battering the seedlings or covering them up entirely.
"In some cases we had sand drifts 15 feet deep or more," said John Wilson, an extension educator for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who added that in other fields the problem is massive erosion. "Some of them, they're just getting abandoned. It costs more than the land is worth to reclaim it."
There are no official estimates about how much flood-battered land will go unplanted this spring. Eddie Hamill, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency state executive director for Missouri, estimated farmers might give up on between 10 and 25 percent of the flooded land this year, depending on the weather. Planting season throughout a large swath of the Midwest generally runs from mid-April through May.
"There are quite a few things still up in the air between now and when planting season might end," Hammill said.
Since the water subsided, Michael Peters has spent his time driving his family's northwest Missouri farm, stopping every now and again to lob tree branches and other leftovers from the flooding into a trailer he pulls behind his four-wheeler.
"I'll be able to plant it," the 39-year-old Peters said of the 500 acres his family owns and the 800 acres they sharecrop. "I don't know what it will raise."
Besides the expense and time that goes into cleaning up damaged lands, farmers are facing the prospect of lower yields. That's because the land was flooded for so long the water killed not just plants but a type of fungus that attaches to their roots and helps them absorb more water and nutrients, said Wilson, who has been talking to farmers about flooded soil issues.
In time, spores of the fungus will repopulate the soil. Until the soil recovers, farmers are being told they will need to provide more fertilizer, particularly those containing phosphorus, Wilson said. But he added that an exact solution is a guess, because the type of flooding farmers experienced last year is an anomaly.
"This is really uncharted territory," he said. "Most of the floods, it comes in and the water goes up and the water goes down. And it's a matter of 10 days or two weeks, tops. Whereas this is really different. We had water standing on a lot of these fields for three months or more."
Some farmers, particularly those in northwest Missouri, already are struggling to hang on after a series of recent floods that culminated with last year's deluge.
The Missouri River flooded 207,000 acres of farmland in Missouri alone, and the lost crops cost the state's farmers nearly $110 million after crop insurance and other disaster payments, according to a report from an agricultural economist at MU. Meanwhile, losses totaled $46.1 million in a six-county region of southwestern Iowa and $41.1 million in eastern Nebraska after crop insurance and other disaster payments, according to Farm Bureau reviews in both states.
Besides the lost income, many farmers whose land sits behind still busted levees will likely face higher crop insurance payments. In some cases farmers will pay twice as much for the federally subsidized policies, which cover part of farmers' losses from such things as drought, flooding, hail, wind, insects and plant disease.
"It's just one nightmare after another," said northwest Missouri farmer Donald Tubbs, who sold 320 mostly sand-covered acres to the corps this year to be used for ecosystem restoration.