After flooding, Midwest farmers fear repeat of '97

Red River overtakes a farmstead south of Fargo
The Red River had overtaken a farmstead south of Fargo by Saturday, March 28, 2009. Some farmers in the flood zone are concerned about the upcoming growing season.
MPR PhotoJeffrey Thompson

(AP) - Spring floods are receding for now, but farmers and ranchers in North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota are worried that they're on track for a repeat of 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."

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Clean field
A sugar beet field in northwestern Minnesota. Farmers in the Red River valley are concerned about how the flood may affect the upcoming growing season.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

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.

In 1997, spring blizzards and record flooding devastated cattle herds, threw crop plans into turmoil and helped send farm income plummeting 85 percent.

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. It means farmers in parts of the state might be pushing a crop insurance deadline to get their crops in the ground, particularly for corn.

Farmers see reduced crop insurance coverage if they fail to meet certain deadlines for planting their crops.

The deadlines vary by crop and region, even within a state, and this year could prove even more of a factor. The average starting date for field work in North Dakota is not expected to be until April 29 - at least two weeks later than normal, according to the Agriculture Department.

Farmers who can't get their crops in the ground at all can collect the prevented planting payment, "but that's not something that's going to make you money," said Swenson, the farm management specialist. "But it will probably get you by."

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, North Dakota's agriculture commission until leaving this week to head the National Farmers Union, had been pushing the federal Agriculture Department to finish writing rules for the programs so that North Dakota ranchers can 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."

Karleen Materi described the situation she and her husband find themselves in as "devastating" but said the couple have a simplistic approach to dealing with it - "Just one day at a time."

Hest - the Red River Valley corn farmer who said he took a big hit to his finances in 1997 but like other farmers enjoyed a profitable year last year - hopes the coming days will bring better weather to dry out his fields.

"I don't want to be too negative, but we've got both the condition of the fields ... and our crop budgets," he said. "We're trying to pencil a profit, see which crops would make us a profit, and right now they're few and far between, with low (market) prices and high input costs.

"It's kind of ironic, coming off one of the best years ever, to go into spring with a pretty poor outlook," Hest said.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)