Farming Through Risk


I’ve lived through tornadoes and hailstorms—but I’ve never seen anything like the derecho that blasted across Iowa and the Midwest on August 10.

Only in the last few days has life on my farm returned to something that resembles normal. For nearly three weeks, we’ve been cleaning up, helping neighbors, and assessing the massive damage.

My family is luckier than a lot of my fellow Iowans. On our farm, near the town of Mount Vernon, the storm did a lot of damage to trees, buildings, and grain bins. It also flattened or damaged a lot of our corn. We’re still not sure how much of it we’ll recover.

But in so many places the devastation is a lot worse.

Just a mile north of us, there are not many grain bins left standing and entire fields of crops are wiped out. The physical wreckage is bad enough, but the emotional devastation may be even worse. Farmers watched a season’s worth of work vanish in a 45-minute flash of fury. For many, the recovery will take years.

The financial damage is severe but hopefully many will have some type of insurance to help them manage that loss. We still don’t have an accurate estimate for the damage and we probably never will, but state officials have said that 10 million crop acres—one-third of Iowa’s total—felt the effects. Corn yields in the hardest-hit areas are estimated to fall by half.

But the emotional rollercoaster and uncertainty of crop prices, trade wars and weather have created a level of stress I fear will be more than some can handle.

silhouette photography of man illustrationAs with any business, farming is full of risks. We do our best to control some of them. We fight weeds, pests and disease with crop-protection products. We prevent soil erosion and runoff by caring for and managing our fields with cover crops and no-till methods. We can even tolerate some dry spells and wet periods if we plant GMO crops with certain characteristics, though it’s impossible to know in November (when we buy seeds) what we’ll wish we had in the summer (when our crops grow).

We simply can’t do much about the weather. We’re at the mercy of the sun and the heat and the rain and the wind. We just have to live with it and do our best.

That includes freak events such as tornadoes and hailstorms. Yet they tend to concentrate their ruin on relatively small areas. The derecho, by contrast, swept across hundreds of miles, from Nebraska to the Great Lakes, in a path that was dozens of miles wide. The strongest winds blew up to 140 miles per hour—the equivalent of a category-four hurricane.

We had almost no warning. The forecast that day had called for wind and rain, but we didn’t know about the severity of the derecho until about 45 minutes before it struck. I raced home after putting away equipment on our farm, battened down the house, prepared for a power outage, and hustled my family into the basement.

After the derecho had passed, I took a quick survey of my farm and went into town, where I serve as a volunteer firefighter. We searched for people who needed help and removed debris. I hope I never again see that level of widespread damage.

This has been my life as we continue the clean-up on our farm and help neighbors and family.

Looking back, if I had paid more attention to my cows and calves, I might have known about the coming disaster. They seem to have a sense of what’s on the way. They seek out low areas and huddle together. Their survival instinct serves them well: Mine made it through the derecho.

So did my soybeans, which are less vulnerable than corn to violent storms that produce significant wind.

Some of my corn still stands, especially in the areas where we’ve practiced no-till agriculture. By not turning over the soil, we’ve made it healthier. The roots of plants sink deeper. The stalks grow stronger. Although, not even the best corn can outlast hurricane-force winds, but my general observation is that the corn in no-till fields performed better for us.

Much of the corn in the path of the beast known as Derecho is bent over or flattened. We’ll try to recover some of the grain, but we don’t know what to expect. In several places, though, we’ve suffered a total loss and we’ll be dealing with those consequences in the coming year.

Farming is a business filled with risk. We are reminded of the power of Mother Nature and our inability to control what she sends our way. It’s a reality faced by all farmers: Our livelihood often revolves around something we cannot control. For me, this is the most frustrating and challenging aspect of raising safe products to feed, fuel and clothe the world. And the accumulated stress and uncertainty weighs on our families.

As we head into the final phase of this growing season, we’re confronted by a lot of unknowns.

We’ll harvest what we can and continue to work hard. We will persevere, carrying on despite the risks, which we’ll both manage and endure.

That’s what farmers do.

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Tim Keegan

Tim Keegan

Animal Science degree from Iowa State, Master's degree, Swine Nutrition from Kansas State. In 2009 he started farming with in-laws. 4,000 acres corn, soybeans; 150-head cow/calf operation. Use precision technology, zone mapping, grid sampling, to better apply seed, fertilizer and chemicals. Have invested in solar technology.

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