'It has a temper': Floodwaters test a Red River Valley family farm

Noreen Thomas stands in front of her house in Kragnes Township, Minn.
Noreen Thomas and her family have seen more than their share of floods over the years in Minnesota's Kragnes Township. The Buffalo River sits adjacent to the farm, which is protected -- in part -- by a permanent ring dike. Major flooding requires several hundred sandbag and constant monitoring. "If we did leave we would definitely lose the house," said Thomas.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

The Thomas farm is nestled in a sharp bend of the Buffalo River, 12 miles outside Moorhead. It's been in this spot and in the family since 1878.

Just a few steps from the back door, Noreen Thomas can see the Buffalo River starting to rise on the other side of an earthen levee that surrounds the farmyard.

"The Buffalo will go up really fast. It can pop several feet overnight," she said. "So [it] looks really mild, but it has a temper."

The Buffalo flows into the Red River a few miles west of where Thomas is standing. If the Red is high, the Buffalo backs up and surrounds the farm.

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!

Dry weather and a slow snow melt has lowered the flood risk for the cities along the Red River. But just beyond them, across the countryside, farmers and rural residents are still preparing for floodwaters that might isolate them for days.

Backyard of Noreen Thomas and her family's home in Kragnes Township.
The Buffalo River sits adjacent to the farm, which is protected, in part, by a permanent ring dike. The dike, which is largely covered by snow now, is a small rise between the trees and the yard.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

The levee around the Thomas' yard has settled in a few spots since it was built in the 1960s, so there's a box of new sandbags, ready to be filled. During the last big flood in 2009, the Thomases needed about 400 sandbags to raise low spots in the levee and block culverts that allow rainwater to drain through it.

"I remember wearing a wetsuit and having to go in and shove sandbags into one of the culverts so it wouldn't leak," Thomas said.

But there's more to preparing for a flood here than getting sandbags ready. There's fuel, batteries, food and a long list of everything the family might need if flood waters cover the roads for a couple of weeks, like they did in 1997 and 2009.

"I've made all sorts of breads," Thomas said, pulling a loaf from a box of supplies. "This is actually an old-fashioned bread, and I'll freeze these and we can just take them out of the freezer and have peanut butter sandwiches, tuna sandwiches."

Breakfast cookies made with applesauce, oats, peanut butter and chocolate.
Farmer Noreen Thomas has started preparing supplies in anticipation of a spring flood. These breakfast cookies, which are made with applesauce, oats, peanut butter and chocolate chunks, are hearty, healthy and handy.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

In past floods, the only way in or out was to paddle a couple of miles to the nearest dry road in a canoe.

Their kids are grown and gone, but Thomas said she and her husband, Lee, usually get help filling sandbags. Their squad of volunteers need to leave before water covers the roads, though, so the constant patrols to check the river level and the levee are left to the Thomases.

When the water is high, Thomas said she often can't sleep, so she walks around the farm yard, checking the levee. That's the part of flooding she dreads.

"You're so tired, an incredible tired," she said. "Every muscle, every ounce of you is just literally wore out. It's almost like when, all of a sudden, the track coach says, 'OK we're gonna run 2 miles today and then you're going to run another 2 miles today and then let's do two more,' and you're just like, 'I'm not sure if I can make that last 2 miles.' But you have to, you have to.

"I don't think I've ever been as tired."

And that's why Thomas and many of her neighbors are making sure they are ready, but holding off as long as they can before filling the sandbags and starting the flood fight.

A 1997 photograph shows flood waters covering fields and road.
A 1997 photograph shows floodwaters covering fields and roads near Noreen and Lee Thomas' farm in Minnesota's Clay County. Water was 5-feet deep at the time this photograph was taken, said Noreen.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

The National Weather Service says ideal spring snowmelt has significantly reduced the flood risk along the Red River, and the cities of Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead last week stopped filling sandbags. City officials are waiting, and will revise flood fighting plans when the National Weather Service issues a flood forecast sometime this week.

Red River of the North
The Red River of the North flows northward to empty into Lake Winnipeg.
William Lager | MPR News

In the meantime, Thomas will be checking online for readings from a river gauge a few miles upstream. When the reading hits major flood stage, she will have a few days' warning to start filling sandbags. Her biggest worry right now is rain.

"[If] it comes down suddenly, that's going to be the changer," she said. "But so far, everyone's kind of like, 'We're gonna wait because it's so much work.' You just know it's so much work that if there's any probability that it's not going to flood, then you're going to go with that for now."

Floodwaters in fields could also delay spring planting. That's another worry for farmers across Minnesota, who are already struggling with historically low annual income and continued low crop prices.

On the Thomas farm, small grains like organic oats and wheat are important crops, and they grow best with an early start.

A driveway leads to the home of Noreen and Lee Thomas in Kragnes Township
A long dirt driveway leads to the home of Noreen and Lee Thomas in Minnesota's Kragnes Township. The Thomas family's homestead becomes an island during major flood events with water covering the driveway and access roads.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

"So we're hoping (for) a good year," she said, "because everyone really needs a good year in the farm community."

Correction (April 2, 2019): Lee Thomas' name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.