USA - Some Iowa farmers still recovering, rebuilding two years after derecho

08.08.2022 238 views

If one looks hard enough, and knows where to look, one can still see evidence of the lingering damage from the 2020 derecho that flattened millions of acres of crops, crumpled grain bins, leveled sheds, toppled silos and tore off barn roofs.

Nearly two years removed from the Aug. 10, 2020, storm with hurricane-strength wind gusts, most Iowa farmers are back on their feet, but some are still recovering and rebuilding their operations, with some toppled and damaged farm buildings still in disarray.

Marion farmer Wayne Blackford and his family farm about 1,700 acres of corn and about 1,100 acres of soybeans. And before the derecho, they fed about 1,500 to 1,600 head of cattle each year.

Today, that number has been cut roughly in half as the family works to rebuild its operations.

“We had cattle on 11 farms before the derecho,” Blackford said, noting the family is no longer feeding cattle on three of the farms and “cut down a fair amount on other farms” but “still have 200 stock cows and we have the calves from them.”

The family lost not only crops but also several cattle barns, sheds, garages and silos. Some, including a cattle barn, machine shop and maintenance shed at the family’s main farm off County Home Road, have been replaced, while others still lie on the ground.

“Financially, the storm didn’t do us too bad,” Blackford said, noting commodity prices remain strong. “Of course, grain prices have gone up, too, and that’s been a big, big help.”

Crop and building insurance covered a bulk of the cost of damage and losses, but clean up has been slow, Blackford said, noting the massive undertaking to recover from the storm that produced wind gusts of an estimated 140 mph in some places.

“Just the time involved to clean up everything,” Blackford said, adding that it’s been “a lot, a lot of work.”

“If we put all of our buildings in one spot, they’d cover 80 acres,” he said.

The derecho leveled four silos and blew away a couple of grain bins at the main farm in Marion that have not been replaced.

“We just burnt and burnt and burnt, and I don’t know that the fire went out for 30 days,” Blackford said of the initial clean up of storm debris at the farm.

In some places, closer to town, the family decided not to rebuild damaged farm buildings. Others sites remain a work in progress.

“The buildings are still there. They’re just lying on the ground,” Blackford said. “We’re going to clean them up slowly, but we’ve got another building site — we got it about half cleaned up last year and we pretty well got it cleaned up this year. That would give us two more years at least for cleanup efforts.”

Over $6B paid to crop farmers

The derecho barreled across a 770-mile swath of the Midwest in 14 hours, becoming, at the time, the costliest thunderstorm event in U.S. history and causing an estimated $12.5 billion in inflation-adjusted damages, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. At least $7.5 billion worth of damage was in Iowa alone, according to state officials.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last week it has processed more than 255,000 applications for the new Emergency Relief Program and made about $6.2 billion in payments to crop farmers to help offset eligible losses from natural disasters in 2020 and 2021, including the derecho. That includes more than 20,000 applications from Iowa totaling more than $381 million.

In the Cedar-Rapids area, more than $48 million has been provided in additional relief for crop losses from the 2020 derecho in Linn, Benton, Iowa, Johnson, Cedar and Jones counties, the USDA said.

The program, signed into law in 2021, sets aside $10 billion to cover crop damage from the derecho and other natural disasters from the past two years.

Emergency Relief Program payments are in addition to crop insurance indemnities farmers received.

Federal crop insurance covered more than $343 million of the nearly $491 million in losses that Iowa farmers faced in 2020 from the derecho, with the state’s farmers responsible for covering $147.5 million out of pocket, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Expediting payments

Iowa U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, D-West Moines, joined U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack in June on a tour of a Minburn farm damaged by the derecho, urging farmers to take advantage of emergency relief funds to recover from the derecho and other qualifying natural disasters in 2020 and 2021.

Axne voted to help secure the $10 billion to cover damage to crops caused by the 2020 derecho and other natural disasters.

Since Vilsack toured the farm, the USDA has indefinitely extended the deadline for producers to return the pre-filled applications for phase one of the Emergency Relief Program.

The USDA’s Farm Service Agency mailed the pre-filled applications to producers covered by federal crop insurance in late May. And pre-filled applications were mailed last week to eligible producers who receive USDA financial assistance for non-insurable crops. So far, the agency has already issued nearly $36 million in payments to producers with eligible losses.

A second phase will fill gaps and cover producers who did not participate in or receive payments through the first phase.

The USDA says it’s been able to streamline and expedite assistance to agricultural producers, disbursing payments within days of rolling out the program.

“Most farmers are back on their feet, but some are still recovering. This was a catastrophic event,” said Matt Russell, state executive director of the USDA-Iowa Farm Service Agency. “The intent of Congress was to provide resources for farmers across the country. And, certainly, it’s the intent of this administration to get those resources out there. … Make it easy to administer and get the dollars quickly into the hands (of farmers).”

‘I see an ag sector that has largely recovered’

But as farmers have begun to fix and replace damaged structures, some have experienced trouble with time and cost to purchase materials and line up contractors due to inflation and supply chain disruptions, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig said.

“Your (insurance) settlement may have occurred after the damage, but that when you actually finally get (a contractor) locked in and pay for that construction and material that it may have elevated in price,” Naig said. “And so I know that has been somewhat of a concern for folks, but I see an ag sector that has largely recovered. Though, again, as I say, you can still see damage or evidence of it if you know what you’re looking for.”

One Benton County farm couple reported being unable to repair damage to their property until just recently due to a dispute with their insurance company.

Naig, though, said by and large state officials have “not been hearing about significant delays or issues” with farmers receiving insurance payments.

“The good news is the crops and the buildings — those things were insurable and, you know, folks were able to work through that process,” Naig said.

He also noted the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship provided about $91,000 from a state soil conservation cost-share program to assist farmers with repairs to 64 windbreaks that sustained damage. And funding still is available.

Landowners interested in applying for funding should contact their local Soil and Water Conservation District. Approved applicants are eligible to receive up to $1,600 per windbreak.

“It’s hard in some ways to believe it’s been two years, and in other ways it feels like it just happened,” Naig said of the 2020 derecho.

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