Two farmers, one headache
By ANDREW MCGINN
With more rain in one week than in the entire month of August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported Monday that Iowa farmers had just 1.4 days suitable for fieldwork the week of Sept. 7-13.
That left 5.6 days to sit and fret.
“I look at this field and I think, ‘How are you going to harvest that?’ Where do you even start?” John Muir wondered one day last week, rain spitting on the windshield of his pickup truck as he looked out at a cornfield between Rippey and Dawson, the sky a wonderfully melancholic color of blah.
Everywhere in Greene County, cornfields are flattened. Tangled. Snarled. Dead or dying. Probably harboring mold.
The derecho that roared across the county on Aug. 10 with winds of 83 mph — and it only got worse from there, according to the National Weather Service, thrashing the Marshalltown area with winds of 100 mph — left farmers with a palpable sense of dread ahead of harvest.
In all of his years farming, Muir, 61, has admittedly never felt this way in the buildup to fall.
“Anxiety is what I’ve been feeling,” he confessed on this day.
On top of it, Muir is asking voters to re-elect him to another term as chairman of the Greene County board of supervisors. But this time, he and his challenger, Chris Henning, are of the same mind — at least as far as predictions go for the 2020 harvest.
Henning owns and manages a 320-acre farm operation in the vicinity of Squirrel Hollow, and she and her farmer, Tom Thorpe, can barely muster the energy to exchange phone calls. Usually, Henning said, this time of year is marked by excited calls back and forth as final preparations are made for harvest.
“It’s too discouraging to even think about,” Henning, 73, explained.
The cornfields are in such bad shape, she said, yet crop insurance companies like hers hope that at least something can be harvested.
That may be easier said than done.
“It looks like a drunken person got on an asphalt roller and drove around in the fields,” she said.
In fields that aren’t entirely flattened, random sections are down, as if visited by flying saucers that left behind crop circles.
“How do you harvest it?” she asked.
That is, how do you harvest it safely?
This harvest, they both believe, could be exceptionally dangerous given that it will take more time to harvest tangled corn — and tangled corn is virtually guaranteed to become tangled in the machinery, leading to more frequent stops.
“To harvest a lot of the corn is just dangerous,” Muir said. “And people are going to be exhausted. It’s just not a good scenario.”
In some places in Greene County, insurers have already given the OK for farmers to destroy their corn crop by disking it. The sight of bright yellow ears of exposed corn, chopped up and left to rot in the fields where they fell, will be a welcome sight only to the rats.
Driving down a gravel road, Muir recalled speaking to a crop insurance adjuster by phone who wanted to know just how flat his corn was following the Aug. 10 storm, which was likened to an inland hurricane.
“If there’s a raccoon running across the field,” he said, “you can see it.”
Greene County has suffered the blow of a derecho before, most notably in 1989. Hailstorms are also a regular part of doing business. But never has the damage been this far and wide, leading Muir to label it historic.
Muir, who farms with two brothers, always thought it was a winning strategy to have farm fields scattered in an area between Jefferson and Dawson. That way, he said, a storm might damage one field but spare another.
The derecho shot that strategy full of holes as it traveled 770 miles in 14 hours, hitting Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and northwest Ohio.
The state on Sept. 11 announced that Greene County was among the Iowa counties added to the Presidential Disaster Declaration originally issued by President Donald Trump on Aug. 17. The declaration makes available Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance to public entities and select nonprofits.
The county on Sept. 3 was designated a contiguous primary natural disaster area by the USDA after U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue called damage to the ag sector “devastating.” The derecho took aim at grain storage as well, crumpling bins like pop cans.
Muir, for one, initially held out hope that flattened corn plants might “gooseneck” back up, as had been the case before in fields hammered by summer storms. Unfortunately, it was too late in the season for plants to rebound.
Ironically, the flattened plants were the ones with good, heavy ears, Muir said — the ones that had endured extreme drought this summer in west-central Iowa.
Corn, he said, has been bred to withstand some pretty dry conditions, meaning that, extreme drought aside, local farmers were looking forward to a fairly respectable harvest this fall.
Enter the derecho.
“It blew up the farm economy is what it did,” Henning explained. “We were going to have a crop, and a normal harvest.”
Now, this isn’t the year, Henning said, to buy a new combine, or to think about acquiring more ground.
Muir said he spoke to one seed man who decided he’s not going to call on anyone this year.
“Nobody’s going to be in a good mood,” Muir said.
The recent rain that fell on top of downed corn will likely only contribute to the growth of mold.
Henning and Muir are more optimistic about their beans this fall, even though the derecho tore the tops off plants.
The USDA this week rated the state’s overall corn crop at 42 percent good to excellent, with soybeans faring slightly better, at 48 percent good to excellent.
The climate issue
Where Muir and Henning diverge in their thinking on the current disaster is reflective of their party affiliations. Henning, a Democrat, believes in climate change. Muir, a Republican, isn’t as sure, despite recent extremes.
“Too much water was the problem last year,” he said, adding, “I’m a slow believer. I have to see more than a couple years.”
Henning doesn’t believe the spike in crazy weather is just a fluke.
“It keeps getting wilder and hotter and more unpredictable,” she said.
Henning dedicated herself to conservation practices more than 25 years ago after seeing how much topsoil she lost in the floods of 1993 — dirt rich with nutrients that washed into her four creeks, any one of which drains into the nearby Raccoon River, a major source of drinking water for the state’s largest city.
“It changed my life. It changed how I farm,” Henning explained. “What we do as farmers makes a hell of a lot of difference to people downstream. What we do here makes a difference.”
She’s particularly concerned that with so much corn likely to be left in the fields this fall to decompose, the nitrogen load next spring that flows, not just to Des Moines, but to the Gulf of Mexico could be a major issue.
She also noted that nitrogen-rich hog manure — a by-product of Greene County’s 102 and counting hog confinements — will be applied to fields as usual.
Already, algae in the Gulf laps up fertilizer intended for crops that washes into the Mississippi River watershed, starving the water of oxygen and creating an ominous “dead zone” incapable of supporting marine life.
Henning decided to run for supervisor, in part, because of the current board’s decision in May to approve an application over vocal opposition for a new hog confinement in Highland Twp. by Stumpf Finishers. In July, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources ultimately denied the Stumpf application on grounds that 45 days had passed without action on repairs to a nearby grassed waterway.
“Our supervisors and our sanitarian fell down on the job there,” she said.
Muir maintains that the county’s hands are tied, and that the state needs to determine the saturation point for CAFOs. At present, he said, the matrix process at least lets concerns be heard.
The debate is sure to extend beyond the 2020 election — but in a year like this, anything is possible between now and Nov. 3.
“What else can happen?” Muir said.
“I shouldn’t say that,” he quickly added. “An early snow would be a finishing touch.”