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Landscape: Betting the Farm

Commodity Crop Recovery Is a Challenge
and a Gamble in Western Iowa

Story by Carol Bodensteiner, photos courtesy Scott Olson/Lee Valley, Inc.

As spring approaches this year, Walter Utman is warily watching the Missouri River. And the levees.

Snowmelt and spring rains predictably cause the river to rise by March, but it’s the unexpected that Utman is contemplating as he plans his planting. Utman farms 900 acres four miles west of Harrison County’s Modale, right up against the Missouri River.

When the river left its banks in the summer of 2011, he lost 120 acres of corn and soybeans. “I couldn’t imagine that the river would do what it did last year,” says Utman, recalling flood waters that the USDA Farm Service Agency reports damaged 284,000 acres in six Iowa counties. “I still can’t imagine it.”

Utman says he and his wife, Ruth, went to bed each night wondering whether the dike a quarter mile from their home would hold, protecting the farmstead they’d farmed since 1978.

“Nights were pretty unnerving. Sometimes we’d hear the train. We were sure it was the train — but what if it wasn’t?”

A few times they abandoned their home to stay with their daughter in Missouri Valley, just for a chance to sleep through the night.

Utman considers himself lucky. The dike held.

Elsewhere the damage was extensive. Almost 90 percent of Iowa’s flooded acres were cropland. The Iowa Farm Bureau estimates the economic loss at $207 million.

Iowa farmers were in the fields as soon as the water receded and the land dried enough, says Clarke McGrath, an Iowa State University Extension field agronomy manager. Returning flooded fields to productive cropland, however, is no easy task. According to McGrath, the flood created at least two major problems.

The first is visible: The river moved the land, depositing sand dunes up to 15 feet high while scouring out ravines 20 to 30 feet deep.The second is concealed below the surface: When water stands on the land for too long, the soil is robbed of oxygen, which, to oversimplify, alters soil chemistry and inhibits nutrient uptake by plants. The so-called flooded soil syndrome produced aerobically dead land.

“I was amazed at the damage. This is what a big, powerful river can do,” says McGrath.

(Read more Betting the Farm)

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