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Historic Midwest floods may put farmers out of business

Flooded farm in Nebraska, March 2019. (Photo: Nebraska National Guard)

Several states in the Midwest are still flooded after a major storm hit the region last week, killing four people, and leaving countless numbers of others homeless. Many of those involved in agriculture have also found themselves unemployed after their crops and/or livestock were destroyed. Some of them may not be able to get back on their feet.

In western Iowa, Jeff Jorgenson had moved all the grain he could by last Saturday – about half of what he had stored in bins – as the Missouri River kept rising. On Sunday, neighbors with nearly a dozen semi-trucks rushed to help the 43-year-old move his remaining corn and soybeans from encroaching flood waters. Dozens of other western Iowa farmers weren’t so lucky.

“The gravel roads were so soft, a lot of guys couldn’t get their grain out,” Jorgenson told the Des Moines Register on Tuesday. “The semis would have just sunk in the mud. I know I’m fortunate.”

Fremont County farmers estimate about 390,000 bushels of stored soybeans and about 1.2 million bushels of stored corn were waterlogged. At local cash prices for corn and soybeans, that’s about $7.3 million that farmers may be unable to replace, and that’s just in one county. Governor Kim Reynolds declared disasters in 41 counties, making the areas eligible for emergency resources.

“The bins are blowing out,” Jorgenson added, with the water-soaked grain swelling and splitting steel grain bins apart. Even if farmers averaged losses of $250,000, “that’s a crazy big” hit for growers, according to Jorgenson. “There’s a good chance some of these folks won’t be farming next year,” he said. “The grain they have in storage is what’s paying back the banker, paying back production loans.”

 Neighbors rallied to help western Iowa farmer Jeff Jorgenson move stored corn and soybeans threatened by flooding.  (Photo: Jeff Jorgenson)
Neighbors rallied to help western Iowa farmer Jeff Jorgenson move stored corn and soybeans threatened by flooding. (Photo: Jeff Jorgenson)

Nebraska may have been hit even harder than Iowa. So far, state officials have estimated overall losses to homes, businesses and infrastructure at $1.3 billion. Damage to ranching is around $500 million, with grain farmers taking a hit of $400 million.

Farmers and ranchers have a lot going against them when it comes to recovery. The storm came just before spring planting, when farmers should be preparing to put seeds in the soil. It’s not just that floodwaters are soaking the land, they are also destroying the farming infrastructure. Where highways and roads have flooded, the National Guard has been airlifting hay and animal feed to stranded farms.

Washed-out roads and bridges have cut off access to ethanol, which Iowa and Nebraska produce more of than any other states. Some of the closed roads surround a Cargill ethanol plant just north of Omaha, which means farmers can’t haul their grain into the plant, cattle feeders can’t pick up grain, and ethanol can’t be shipped out due to out-of-service railways.

The flood damage may not only put many farmers out of business, it could also impact food prices for all of us. Nebraska has 6.4 million head of cattle, making it the second-largest cattle state in the country. It’s also the country’s third-largest corn-producing state – the crucial ingredient in feed. With a large percentage of the supply now gone, we may end up paying more for our corn on the cob, steaks and pork chops at our summer cookouts this year.

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Nick Austin, Director of Weather Analytics and Senior Meteorologist

In his 17 years of weather forecasting experience, Nick worked on air at WBBJ-TV and WRCB-TV, including time spent doing weather analysis and field reporting. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from Georgia Institute of Technology. Nick is also a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” for eight consecutive years. Nick earned his National Weather Association Broadcasting Seal in 2005.

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