After Flooding, Midwest Farmers Fear Repeat Of ’97

April 8, 2009

Recent floods are receding for now, but farmers and ranchers in North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota are worried they’re on track to repeat the dismal year of 1997.

That was the year spring blizzards and record flooding devastated cattle herds, threw crop plans into turmoil and helped send farm income plummeting 85 percent.

This time around, producers already have two strikes against them: the wet fall and the severe winter, said Andy Swenson, a farm management specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

“The third strike is what the weather is going to be like this spring,” Swenson said. “We’re in spring, and it’s not going so well for us. We’re halfway through our third swing and not connecting.”

Some producers are close to striking out.

Leroy and Karleen Materi, who ranch in the Linton area of south-central North Dakota, lost about 120 cows and calves – more than half their herd – when a creek spilled its banks and devastated the area. The couple is thinking of moving to Bismarck.

“It’s hard to live like this,” Karleen Materi said. “It’s not a pleasant situation. (Leroy) said at first he was going to sell them all. But it’s hard for him to give that up. That’s his life. I think maybe he was just talking.”

Other producers, like Bryan Hest, who farms on the Minnesota side of the Red River north of Fargo-Moorhead, are optimistic despite the troubled spring – a spring in which Hest found himself in a combine, harvesting 300 acres of corn he was unable to get in the bin last fall because of wet weather.

“I’m quite confident there is still opportunity,” he said. “If we can get in (the fields) relatively decently this spring, we can pull out a crop.”

That will not be easy for many farmers in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota. Doug Hagel, the regional director of the federal Agriculture Department’s Risk Management Agency, said flooding might prevent many fields from being planted – perhaps the most in years.

In 1997, when the Red River flooded up and down the valley, there were more than 800,000 acres of “prevented planting” in North Dakota. The crop insurance term refers to land that can’t be seeded because it is too wet or too dry. Farmers are reimbursed only a portion of what they might have earned from a crop on that land.

“1997 was probably a comparable year,” Hagel said. “From what we’re seeing from various reports … we could still have five to eight weeks of flooding in various parts of North Dakota. Eight weeks would take us pretty close to the end of May.”

Later planting not only means the potential loss of yield and quality. Farmers could be pushing a deadline for crop insurance to get their seeds in the ground.

Crop insurance isn’t available to cow-calf producers like the Materis, though the new federal farm law includes emergency aid programs for ranchers hit by storms and floods. Roger Johnson, head of North Dakota’s agriculture commission until leaving this week to head the National Farmers Union, had been pushing the USDA to finish writing rules for the programs so that North Dakota ranchers could start drawing on them.

“I think (livestock losses) are going to be the biggest consequence of this difficult winter and spring,” Johnson said.

His agency is gathering information on animal deaths but does not yet have an estimate on how severe the losses will be. Reports are still coming in, and the calving season is only about half over.

Johnson said he didn’t think losses will be nearly as bad as 1997, when more than 100,000 animals died and the National Guard was called out to help ranchers with carcass removal. He also said that even with hard numbers it will be difficult to immediately assess what the harsh spring will mean to ranchers.

“Nobody markets day-old calves,” he said. “That $100 calf that you lose at birth is maybe a $500 or $600 calf in the fall or early next year. This is a problem that’s going to be with us for a while. It will be manifested as the year closes and the next year begins.”

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