WINSLOW, Neb. — Farmers have been gambling they could ride out the U.S.-China trade war by storing their harvested corn and soybeans anywhere they could — in bins, plastic tubes, in barns or even outside — until prices rise.
Now, the unthinkable has happened: Record floods have devastated a wide swath of the Farm Belt across western Iowa, eastern Nebraska and several other states. Early estimates of lost crops and livestock are approaching $1 billion in Nebraska alone. With more flooding expected, damages are expected to climb much higher.
As the river levels rose, spilling over levees and swallowing up townships, farmers watched helplessly as waters consumed not only their fields, but their grain stockpiles — the one thing that could stand between them and ruin.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” said Tom Geisler, a farmer in Winslow, Neb., who said he lost two full storage bins of corn. “We had been depending on the income from our livestock, but now all of our feed is gone, so that is going to be even more difficult. We haven’t been making any money from our grain farming because of trade issues and low prices.”
The pain does not end there. As the waters began to recede, the damage to rural roads, bridges and rail lines was beginning to emerge. This infrastructure is critical for the agricultural sector to move products from farms to processing plants and shipping hubs.
The damage to roads also means it will be harder to deliver seed to farmers for the planting season. But in some areas, flooding will render fields almost impossible to plant anyway.
The deluge is the latest blow for the Farm Belt, which has faced several crises in the last five years as farm incomes have fallen by more than 50 percent due to a global grain glut. Then President Donald Trump’s trade policies cut off exports of soybeans and other products, making it worse for now.
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Soybeans were the single most valuable U.S. agricultural export crop and until the trade war. China bought $12 billion worth a year from American farmers. But Chinese retaliatory tariffs have almost halted the trade, leaving farmers with crops they are struggling to sell.
As prices plummeted last year in the ongoing trade fight, growers, faced with selling crops at a loss, stuffed a historic volume of grain into winding plastic tubes and steel bins. Some cash-strapped families piled crops in their barns or outside on the ground.
Farmers say they now are finding storage bags torn and bins burst open, grain washed away or contaminated.
Jeff Jorgenson, a farmer and regional director for the Iowa Soybean Association, said he has seen at least a dozen bins that burst after the oilseeds swelled when they became wet.
Under Food and Drug Administration policy, flood-soaked grain is considered adulterated and must be destroyed, according to Iowa State University.
Some farmers had been waiting for corn prices to rise just 10 cents a bushel more before making sales, which would earn them a few extra thousand dollars, Jorgenson said.
“That’s the toughest pill to swallow,” he said. “This could end their career of farming and the legacy of the family farm.”
As of Dec. 1, producers in states with flooding now — including Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Wisconsin and Illinois — had 6.75 billion bushels of corn, soybeans and wheat stored on their farms, or 38 percent of the total supplies available at that time, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.
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Iowa suffered at least $150 million in damage to agricultural buildings and machinery, and 100,000 acres of farm land are under water, said Keely Coppess, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who already had declared 41 of Iowa’s 99 counties disaster areas, added two more to the list Wednesday — Marshall and Audubon.
The record flooding has killed at least four people in the Midwest and left one person missing. The extent of damage is unknown as meteorologists expect more flooding to come.
Early estimates put flood damage at $400 million in losses for Nebraska’s cow-calf industry and another $440 million in crop losses, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said.
At Geisler’s farm in Winslow, two trucks and a tractor were buried in mud in wooden barns.
“We should have been getting into planting for next season, but now all of our equipment is flooded and it’s going to take at least three to four weeks to bring back that equipment into shape,” said Geisler.