Farm Disasters Are Predictable Emergencies

Bad things will happen, but the consequences of a 'predictable emergency' can be managed.

Published on: Jun 19, 2013

By John Shutske

Farming is chock-full of risk. Storms, fires, floods, droughts, and injuries fill newspapers every week and cost hundreds of millions in damage. While I worked on this article, I had a dairy farmer friend who experienced major damage from violent winds, and a big fire damaged two-thirds of a large Wisconsin organic milk cooperative.

What should we do?  Should we chalk it up to bum luck and resign ourselves to the phenomenon that "bad stuff just happens?"

Bad things will happen – but the consequences of a "predictable emergency" can be managed.  We often talk about disasters.  But, disasters are usually the result of a predictable emergency gone awry. And, the biggest factor that determines whether or not an emergency becomes a disaster is a speedy response.  On a farm, a response that occurs in minutes or hours versus days (or weeks) will mean the difference between a recoverable event, and a disaster that brings ruin. 

Farm Disasters Are Predictable Emergencies
Farm Disasters Are Predictable Emergencies

How do you prepare?
How can you insure that you have done everything in your power to save precious time after something unexpected strikes?  Here are steps that can make a huge difference.

1.  Make a list of events that could cause harm to your faming business. This is a great exercise to engage family members or employees. Which are most likely?  Which would cause the greatest damage?  In Wisconsin, we often see floods, windstorms, fires, and other naturally-occurring and manmade events. 

2.  Pick one of these and talk through what an event might look like. Wind storms often cause a power outage. How would that affect your operation? How about the well-being of animals? Perhaps you would have damage to feed storage structures or animal housing. Maybe your house would be unlivable, though you'd still need a place to rest as you keep the farm going. Perhaps your computer system and financial records would be damaged or lost. Again, it's important to step through and imagine the consequences.  These things do happen, and you'll want to be creative as you prepare.

3.  Based on the outcomes you've imagined, make a list of the supplies needed immediately to recover and keep things operating. Examples include a generator, extra tools, fire extinguishers, gasoline, a backup feed and water supply, a small stockpile of building supplies, etc. As you think about supplies, consider items your family would need to survive for three days. It's hard to recover and get back on your feet without food, water, cooking supplies, lighting, and a source of heat. Even people in the city are encouraged to keep supplies on hand to be self-sufficient for 72 hours if they encounter an unexpected disaster! Your employees should be encouraged to do the same.


As you build up a supply stockpile, make sure they are securely stored and protected from rodents and insects. Be careful not to "part out" your supply cache. It does no good to stockpile food, batteries, tools, gasoline, etc. if they are all missing or "used up" when needed.

4.  Similarly, think about the critical relationships you'd need to call upon if something bad happened. Maintain a list of phone numbers and contact information on paper and on your cell phone.  Examples include the fire department, insurance agents, veterinarians and someone to help restore electricity or rebuild. 

Don't forget about children and others who need care.  Make sure you've thought about who might care for them for a day or two while you're busy getting things back in order.

Planning takes positive actions.  If you pick a hazard or two and plan for it, you'll find that many actions will apply whether you're dealing with a fire, flood, blizzard, tornado, or even an animal disease outbreak.

As a final note, don't forget about protecting vital business records and personal information.  This includes financial data, photographs, and family memorabilia. Recovering from a burned building or a silo that's been blown off its foundation is something that your insurer and contractor can help you recover from. But, recovering forever-lost business records or items of sentimental value is impossible.  Luckily, we now have ways to secure digital information in alternative formats off-site or in the "cloud," making recovery a mere inconvenience instead of a life-changing and sad event.

Take time NOW to prepare for the predictable.  You'll be glad you did!

Shutske is the associate dean and program director for Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension.