Families Growing Our Food: Rebuilding the Land After Floods

Husker Home Place

I visited Scott Olson right after Missouri River flood waters receded in 2011, and again at harvest a year later.

Published on: August 2, 2013

Curt’s Comments:   Farmers are hardworking folks. They deal with challenges and potential tragedies every day. It is a part of depending on the land for a living. In 2011, farmers along the Missouri River were dealt a heightened blow they hadn’t counted on. The flooding along the river that summer was much worse than anyone could have predicted, and there was very little notice beforehand to allow folks to prepare. Yet, farmers like Scott Olson of Tekamah have been working to rebuild their land after the flooding, at times filling in huge crevices that no one would ever have thought could be farmed again. Here is his story…

After the water finally receded in late summer 2011, farmers who live and work along the Missouri River like Scott Olson of Tekamah, were left with the job of cleaning up and trying to rejuvenate valuable farm ground that was normally worth up to $6000 per acre.

BIG HOLES TO FILL: Missouri River floods of 2011 left huge crevices to fill in Scott Olsons fields, but by 2012, he had leveled and planted his fields back to crops.
BIG HOLES TO FILL: Missouri River floods of 2011 left huge crevices to fill in Scott Olson's fields, but by 2012, he had leveled and planted his fields back to crops.

After leveling, packing and renovating flooded farm ground, Olson planted a cover crop of oats, in an effort to build organic matter before planting. After killing the oats with glyphosate, he planted into the stubble.

At harvest time, Olson found extreme variability in his 2012 crops. He said that the corn averaged a little over 100 bushels per acre on the irrigated river land. While this is much more than Olson might have expected after surveying his land for the first time as flood water receded, it is a far cry from normal yields of 200 bushels per acre or more. “It is really spotty,” he says. “The yield monitor will jump from 250 bushels down to zero just like that.” There is no easy answer to the extreme variability of yields, but it is understandable under the circumstances.

Olson farms 3000 acres and operates Lee Valley, Inc., a machinery business and auction and realty company, with his brother, Randy and father, Robert. During their cleanup process, the family moved tons of sand and soil to level huge dunes and fill deep crevices left by flood waters. Olson says that wind caused bona fide sandstorms while they were working that made it difficult to see and breathe at times.

On part of Olson’s field, UNL researchers looked at varied methods of bringing land into production after flooding in a study partially funded through local contributors. There were federal programs that helped farmers with cleanup. Emergency Conservation Program funds administered through Farm Service Agency covered 75% of the allowable costs with some limitations. But actual expenses often exceeded the allowable costs for many farmers, so the percentage of actual costs that were covered was somewhat to considerably less. In some cases, it cost more to bring the land back into production than the land is worth.

Olson still has recovery work to do on 60 acres adjacent to the river that are not under the center pivot. He planned to clear and level this part of the field this fall after harvest, to prepare it for cropping. “I would like to plant rye on this section, and harvest it to use as cover crop seed on the rest of the field,” Olson says. Now that he has leveled most of the field and rejuvenated his flood-damaged center pivot system, rebuilding the soil will continue as a challenge for years to come.

Telling the flood story is important to Olson. He made a point to share aerial photos he took of the historic flooding along the Missouri River, and sharing aftermath flood damage photos from the past several months on his website. “I want people to remember the flooding, and learn from it,” Olson says.

Olson, UNL Extension educator in Burt County, John Wilson, and a crop insurance specialist testified at U.S. House of Representatives and Senate briefings for congressional staffers in Washington, D.C. in October 2011. In the briefings, organized by the Soil Science Society of America, Olson told staffers about the extent of the flood damage to his farmground and to the land and farmsteads of his neighbors. He discussed the toll floods took on local infrastructure like roads, bridges and levees. He also noted the high cost of bringing farmground back into production, which in some cases was more than the land was worth on the market. Olson talked about how the flood affected his family and their operation.

Wilson talked about the steps necessary to bring flooded land back to crop production. He told staffers about removing debris and sediment, repairing erosion, soil sampling, planting cover crops and addressing other issues unique to flooded soils. Olson and Wilson also visited personally with several Nebraska congressional staffers during their trip. You can see all of Olson’s aerial photos of the 2011 Missouri River flood and the aftermath at http://www.leevalley.net/missouririverflood.htm.

If you like this story or learned something you didn’t know by reading it, please pass it on to your urban friends who are interested in farmers and food production. Be sure to watch the last Friday of every month at Husker Home Place for more stories about the real families growing our food.