Missouri River farmers start cleanup

The coming months won’t be easy for flooded farmers like Scott Olson of Tekamah. Of course, the past few months haven’t exactly been a cakewalk for hundreds of farmers who operate along the Missouri River.

Walking out over 500 acres of Olson land, ravaged by river floodwaters all summer, Scott Olson says that it is difficult to decide where to start to reclaim his river bottom farm, where corn and soybeans were growing before the water hit in early June.

In fact, Olson was fertilizing corn in another field adjacent to his flooded ground as the river began to rise. “I would stop every few rounds and ask myself if I should continue,” Olson says, because no one knew at the time where the flooding would stop.

At a glance

Tekamah farmer deals with the aftermath of the Missouri River flood.

Challenges include moving sand dunes, filling ravines caused by erosion.

It may take years to reclaim much of the most damaged land.


Now, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has decreased water releases from river dams and floodwaters have begun to recede, Olson’s land looks like a desert landscape, with fine, blow sand covering the fields, often in drifts 8 to 10 feet high. There are also ravines, sometimes 10 to 15 feet deep.

One ravine, at the middle of an ancient oxbow slough, is cut 15 feet deep, 300 feet across and over one-quarter mile up into the field. In late September, at least 10 feet of water still filled this crevice.

Olson farms 3,000 acres and operates Lee Valley Inc., a machinery business and auction and realty company north of Tekamah, with his brother, Randy. He says that his center pivot remained intact, with a few tires buried in deep sand. A playground slide landed in the middle of the field, along with a household deck and driftwood balanced against the center pivot. Otherwise, the field is surprisingly clear of debris.

Olson grew up a quarter-mile from the river and has farmed in the region all of his life, but he has never seen anything remotely like this year’s flood. And he is one farmer among hundreds who have suffered a similar fate.

Burt County’s Farm Service Agency estimates that more than 20,000 acres of farmland were flooded or affected by floodwaters this summer in that county alone. “There is a lot of variation from one farm to another as far as the extent of damage,” says John Wilson, University of Nebraska Extension educator in Burt County. “Some farms just lost a crop with no sedimentation or erosion, while others have huge problems.”

What farmers do to reclaim their land, which often sells for $5,000 to $6,000 per acre or more, depends on the extent of damage, Wilson says. “If there is little or no erosion or deposition on the ground, I would get a cover crop planted immediately,” he says. “If weeds are growing, let them grow, but possibly seed in a cover crop to complement their growth. Any kind of plant, weed or cover crop will help return mycorrhizal growth,” which is necessary to restore the soil to production.

Day-by-day strategy

Olson’s strategy is developing every day. His first priority is to harvest the crops that he has this year.

Next, he will try to level and grade the half of the fields that remained mostly unscathed, except for blow sand. The problem for Olson is deciding how to manage the rest, moving huge sand dunes and filling gigantic ravines once the water completely recedes.

He plans to push as much of the sand into the crevices as possible. He will add soil and roll out bales of cornstalks, soybean stubble or other organic matter to add humus, and he will top it off with higher-quality soil.

Olson believes the most damaged land will take years to repair, if it can be done at all. “This flood will affect the jobs, commerce, businesses and farming in this area for years,” he says. “And the worst thing about it is that it was man-made.”

“I can’t think of one business on Main Street that may not be adversely affected in some way by the flood,” says Wilson. “It is putting a stress on everyone affected by the floods, emotionally, physically and financially. To me, the duration of the flood makes it a greater stress than a hailstorm or similar event,” he says. “But farmers, being a resilient group, are dealing with the flooding situation head-on.”

For Olson, his fellow flooded farmers and residents of rural towns up and down the Missouri River, there isn’t much choice.

For more resources for dealing with the flood aftermath, visit the University of Nebraska-Lincoln flood website at flood.unl.edu.

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CRATER ON THE FARM: Tekamah farmer Scott Olson inspects a 300-foot-wide ravine left on his Burt County farm by Missouri River flooding this summer.

This article published in the November, 2011 edition of NEBRASKA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.