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Before land altered like this can be farmed, the sand has to be removed or distributed and incorporated into the soil. Holes and ravines have to be filled in.

“Where there are high amounts of sediment or where there’s deep erosion, it may take two years to repair,” says Shawn Shouse, Iowa State University agriculture engineering field specialist.

“Some farmers may farm around those areas while they decide if it’s worth the cost. If a levee hasn’t been repaired, they may question putting in a crop at all.”

Farmers can take steps to speed the recovery process. Planting a cover crop such as rye, oats, or wheat is one approach agronomists recommend for getting live roots back in the soil and generating aerobic fungi levels necessary for crop growth.

“Fungi will come back on their own, but it takes months to build up to normal levels. The fungi are there waiting for roots to grow on,” explains Shouse. “If the soil hasn’t been covered up or washed away, it should be back to a good, productive state as soon as the soil has drained and roots are established.”

“From a biological perspective, it makes great sense to try to get living roots in the soil as soon as possible,” says Rich Pope, Harrison County extension agent. “The more time live, functioning roots are present before planting a crop, the better.”

Unfortunately, persistent flood waters made that strategy unfeasible. Water wasn’t off much farmland until September. Then western Iowa experienced the driest fall on record. Tens of thousands of acres needed a cover crop and didn’t get it. A cover crop this spring is still an option.

“There’s about a six-week window from mid-March to early May where a cover crop could be planted, get roots established, and beneficial fungi can reestablish on these roots,” says McGrath.

“If the weather cooperates, the cover crop could be established, then eliminated in time for corn and soybeans to be planted.”

Can Iowa farmers expect the land to then produce a crop? “There is no real way to know,” says Pope. “This flood event is unprecedented, agronomically as well as otherwise.

Corn will likely be more affected than soybeans [due to nutrient requirements], but there is no way to know how much. We will have some nutrient uptake issues, especially with phosphorus and possibly with other nutrients.”

The stress Utman felt during the flood of 2011 hasn’t gone away. When he looks out across his land this spring, he thinks a lot about the levees. “The levees north of me are still intact, but they need work. They’ve never been tested like this. They were saturated. Will they hold?”

Farming is a gamble, admits Utman, who is putting in a crop this year, betting that the river won’t flood again. “It’s a chance you take. It’s a roll of the dice.”


Spring’s late melting snow and above-normal rainfall in the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains forced record releases from upstream reservoirs in May. Some communities and farms on both sides of the Missouri spent the summer submerged. The receding waters revealed a dramatically altered landscape (top).


Learn more about flood recovery online at > Topics of Interest > Recovering from Disasters. See more photos of the flood and aftermath online at

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