Water Begins to Dampen Farmers’ Dreams


DEVIL’S LAKE, N.D. (DTN) — Eric Aasmundstad was tilling ground just southwest of town, not far from his farmhouse Wednesday afternoon.

Aasmundstad’s fieldwork looked like anyone else’s, except that the portion of the field that he could till was surrounded by water everywhere except along Highway 19, which is a construction zone. Aasmundstad, president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau, is one of thousands of farmers this year across the country trying to farm flooded ground.

However, in much of the country, flooded ground is the exception, caused this year by swollen rivers; in big chunks of the Dakotas, it has become the norm. Aasmundstad and others around Devil’s Lake have been struggling with slowly encroaching water since the early 1990s.

“We’ve got about 2,900 acres out of 3,500 under water,” Aasmundstad said.

With temperatures in the low 60s on Tuesday and Wednesday, farmers with higher ground were busy in the fields throughout North Dakota. Yet, temperatures dipped below freezing in parts of the state Wednesday night, and forecasts call for a chance of rain over the weekend.

Farmers in the Dakotas were expected to step up this year and help fill the need for corn given strong demand. In March, USDA forecast North Dakota would plant 2.5 million acres of corn, an increase of 450,000 acres from last year. South Dakota is projected to plant 5.4 million acres, a 950,000-acre increase from last year. As of Monday, USDA projected North Dakota had 1.22 million acres of corn planted, or about half the expected crop.

Flooding in other parts of the country may have taken 2 to 3 million acres out of production elsewhere, leaving even more of a gap.

Wednesday was the date set by the Risk Management Agency beyond which farmers will start seeing their crop insurance coverage dwindle 1 percent for every day planting is delayed. North Dakota also consistently has been the leading state for prevented planting claims since the early 1990s.

“What’s really frustrating is you farm your whole life, and the old saying is you are going to get two [good] years. This is one of those years, and we’ve lost all this land, and you can’t take advantage of it — $7 corn. It’s unfortunate as hell. This is the year that a lot of guys my age around here were going to be set up.”

So much of North Dakota’s farm ground has standing water. In many places, it actually whitecaps when the wind blows over the once-cropped fields. In other areas, such as eastern parts of the state, mud needs warmer weather to dry out.

North Dakota farmers can’t cope with the volume of water that has Devil’s Lake, and most of the watersheds south of the lake, full of water. Devil’s Lake itself is like a bowl reaching the brim full of water, but more keeps pouring in. “I’ve got a 120 here, a quarter south of here and another 80, and all of that is now water in the lake,” he said, pointing to a small, green mound above the water where his father was born in 1917. “That was all farmed two years ago. We farmed 280 acres here on this side of the road.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working on a plan to develop a better release valve, but not until the lake rises another three feet. The state and federal government are spending tens of millions to build up the roads like Highway 19.

But water keeps encroaching and consuming whole farms. Aasmundstad said the state has lost 200,000 acres of cropland since 1993. Farmers in some places have seen ground go to wetlands, and then literally to lakes.

“It’s a travesty what’s happened here,” he said. “Last year, we had 190-bushel corn up here, 60 miles from the Canadian border. Who would have thunk it? Forty to 50 bushel beans. This is great country to farm in, but this is probably my last year. A lot of my neighbors have left.”

Aasmundstad is building a home in town and looking to sell his current home to the county because he can’t get to it and has lost the ability to manage sewage.

“That’s what’s happened here. It’s kind of a sad deal,” he said.

A couple hours west of Devil’s Lake, the Missouri River basin in North Dakota is now flooding because of melting snowpack and heavy rains in Montana last week. The Corps of Engineers in Omaha warned of “record flows and heavier volume runoff” for the Missouri River, requiring the Corps to release significant volumes of water out of dams in the Dakotas.

“Basically, there is little or no storage left in our reservoirs,” stated Jody Farhat, chief of the Corps’ Missouri River Basin Water Management Division in Omaha.

Rural roads were again closed or being shored up in lowlands, and more farmland and pasture were being overtaken by temporary waters.

Already, Minot, N.D., officials and volunteers have been trying to shore up dikes, but the Corps’ warning prompted officials further downstream in cities like Bismarck and Mandan, N.D., to set up sandbagging centers and implement emergency flood plans.

For the Bismarck area, releases of the Garrison Dam of 85,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) will mean reaching a stage of 17.5 to 18 feet, a situation not encountered since Garrison Dam was built in the 1950s. “It moves us into uncharted territory,” Farhat said. The previous record release from Garrison Dam was 65,200 cfs in 1975, the Corps stated.

“This is the situation where we are today,” Farhat said. “But it’s not the worst-case scenario because snowmelt and additional heavy rainfall may mean even higher releases.”

Chris Clayton can be reached at chris.clayton@telventdtn.com.


© Copyright 2011 DTN/The Progressive Farmer, A Telvent Brand. All rights reserved.

Posted with DTN Permission by Haylie Shipp


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