Fixing Farmland along the Missouri River

May 4, 2012

Last fall, officials predicted that farmland along the Missouri River might be out of production for at least a year. The flood of 2011 piled up sand dunes, gouged out deep holes and killed off many of the microbes that help crops grow.

But now it’s spring, and farmers are back on the land trying to fix what nature broke.

There’s something not quite picture-perfect about this picturesque farmland, known as Blackbird Bend, along the Missouri River near Onawa.   A 24-row corn planter is brushing over the tops of an already stunning winter wheat crop, twelve inches high. 

These 1700 acres would make a Kansas farmer proud, but Brent Hayes is an Iowa corn farmer.

“I’ve never seen this good a stand of wheat in our area," he says. "To be destroying it is kind of sad, but the corn will work out better for us cause I don’t know how the wheat would do in the long run I guess.

"There’s not a lot of wheat grown in our area.”

So right after Hayes finished planting corn on top of his wheat fields, the wheat was sacrificed.  It had served its purpose, bringing life back to the land depleted by last year’s Missouri River flood.

Rich Pope, with Iowa State University extension, describes the flood in almost Biblical terms.  Cropland that was submerged for about three months, essentially, suffocated.

“There are areas out here that have not had this duration of floodwater in something like 10,000 years,” Pope says.

“The time when the last glacier was melting, the last glaciers, was when the Missouri River valley filled, so some of these areas out here it’s more than a once in a millennium.”

There’s a real sense of history as farmers glide their planters over topsoil that is not as rich as it used to be.  In Iowa alone, more than a quarter-million acres of agricultural land were inundated, including about 10 percent of Dave Hausman’s property.  He’s scraped off the sand and silt, and planted oats to control erosion and restore the microorganisms. 

Despite 50 years of farming experience, Hausman never learned how to deal with this, and joined his neighbors in seeking guidance from the experts.

“We went to meetings after the flood, well I did, they’re saying this is what you need to do in order to enhance the productivity of the following crop," Hausman says. "We’re following their advice and they readily admit they don’t know what the end result will be either.”

When planting is finished, Hausman will re-enter the fields, eradicate the oats, and reclaim the land for beans.  

“Given the circumstances, I don’t feel bad about that at all," he says. "I think that is an investment that we have to make in order to try to enhance production of that ground with a primary crop, which will be soybeans.”  

But will it work? Can this land be productive just one year after the smothering flood of 2011?

Pope isn’t sure.

“No one that I know in agronomic history in North America had an experience like this, which makes it different.  One of the comments that my colleagues and I have gone out and said, and when were working with farmers directly is, no one can tell you what is the right thing to do.," Pope says, "but we can give you some things to think about.”  

Novice wheat farmer Brent Hayes is constantly reminded of the high stakes gamble of farming; his newly-planted corn fields border the ghostly Omaha Indian casino that was closed by the flood, and he wheels his tractor past a sprinkler system that sustained a half million dollars in water damage. 

But this new-generation farmer likes the odds of his career choice.   

“Farming’s really good the market is really good we’ve been blessed with pretty good weather the last couple years I think farmers are pretty happy and farming is pretty enjoyable right now, I don’t think you could get me to go back in the office, I kind of love what I do now I guess.”  

And these men of the earth are optimistic; since this anemic soil can sustain cover crops like wheat and oats, they expect it to ultimately provide good returns again for corn and beans.