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Some Southwest Iowa Farmers See Progress Since 2019 Flooding

A collapsed grain bin seen in Hamburg in August 2019.
Katie Peikes
IPR File
A collapsed grain bin in Hamburg in August 2019.

Farmers in southwest Iowa are preparing to harvest their crops. For some, it’s a big improvement from last year after massive Missouri River flooding ruptured grain bins, soaked farmland and prevented planting.

This time last year, many were returning to their fields to assess and clean up the damage from flooding. According to the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation’s senior economist, Fremont, Mills and Pottawattamie counties had 99,000 acres of flooded cropland in 2019. Flooding destroyed an estimated nearly 2.5 million bushels of grain stored on farms or at co-ops in those three counties, according to data from the Iowa office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency.

Jeff Jorgenson, a farmer in Sidney and the president-elect of the Iowa Soybean Association, has 750 acres of farmland in the Missouri River bottom, the floodplain between the Loess Hills and the Iowa-Nebraska border. It’s roughly a quarter of all of his farmland. He couldn’t plant on those 750 acres last year. But this year, he was able to plant on all but five to 10 of those acres that have sand that drifted on them.

“When we were looking at it essentially in January, really our hope was we could get 75 percent of it, because it was a reality that there was still a lot of work to get done to get things in production,” Jorgenson said.

He planted all soybeans on those acres this year.

“Our crop looks really good for the most part,” Jorgenson said. “It’s a little dry. We’ve definitely had some hit from the dryness that we’ve had, but all in all, we’re just getting ready to go.”

Last year, Pat Sheldon only got about 10 to 15 percent of his farmland in Fremont County – which is mostly around Percival – planted. With better weather this year, he was able to plant on most of it, though he didn’t get to farm about 800 acres that still have sand on them, like some of Jorgenson's acres.

“I took the worst physical beating riding the tractor planting this year than I’ve ever taken, just because things were rough,” Sheldon said. “And we tilled it and tilled it and tilled it, trying to smooth it out, and it was wet enough that we couldn’t get it real smooth. It was not a fun spring, but I’m amazed at how things look.”

Sheldon said there is still a long way to go to return to normal. But the ears on his corn are “huge," so he said he’s hoping for good yields this year.

Aaron Saeugling, an Iowa State University extension field agronomist for southwest Iowa, said for the most part, these crops are maturing ahead of schedule.

“Farmers will be harvesting earlier than anticipated,” Saeugling said.

He said drought-prone areas could be two to three weeks ahead of schedule in harvest. Area that have closer to normal moisture could be a week ahead of schedule because August was dry.

The significantly less precipitation in southwest Iowa this year has been good for farmers, allowing them to resume normal or close to normal production, Saeugling said. Glenwood in Mills County is 6.5 inches behind normal precipitation, while Sidney in Fremont County is 4 inches behind normal, he said.

But not all of southwest Iowa is faring the same.

“The southern portion – Fremont County and parts of Mills County look pretty good. But the growers that are challenged are up in that Missouri Valley, Harrison County, parts of Pottawattamie,” Saeugling said. “They went from a flood to a drought.”

According to the United States Drought Monitor, Fremont county is currently abnormally dry to moderate drought. Mills county is currently in moderate to severe drought. Harrison and Pottawattamie counties are in extreme drought.

Harvest has already begun in some places, like Cass County, Saeugling said. For others, harvest will be in late September.

Updated at 5 p.m. September 3rd.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.