Farms Rebuild From Derecho Destruction

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LINCOLN, Neb. (DTN) -- Around 10:30 a.m. on Aug. 10, 2020, Morey Hill and his wife, Rhonda, watched out their kitchen window what they thought would be "typical Midwest weather" from a darkened sky to the west of their home near Madrid, Iowa.

A deck on the west side of their ranch-style house faced the coming storm.

Morey Hill's sister-in-law in Carroll, Iowa, called them with a warning: She had just experienced a derecho picking up steam in the western part of the state.

It slammed into the Hills' place northwest of Des Moines shortly after.

"Within the first five minutes, there was enough trees on the deck you couldn't hardly see out that window," he told DTN a year later.

"And, like rubberneckers, my wife and I stood in the kitchen and just watched the hell get blown out of everything, trees falling and stuff flying around, and at one time, we couldn't even see the barn, which is right across the driveway to the east.

"Just the sheer volume of stuff flying around -- it was amazing. It just seemed like the longer it went, the stronger the winds became," he said.

Hill's barn was badly damaged, he lost a grove of pine trees, and the farm lost electricity.

"I'm one of the smaller farmers, I farm about 400 acres by myself, and it's funny, like the week before I had been out doing some spot checks and yield checks, and it was looking super," said Hill.

"I'm positive that I had over 200-bushel corn and beans in that 55-to-60 range which, for my farm, is pretty good."

But then the derecho winds, in some places in excess of 100 miles per hour, ripped through Iowa and other Midwest states that day.

Hill's corn and soybean crops were flattened.

Hill, who is on the board of directors for the Iowa Soybean Association, was counting board election ballots on Aug. 10, 2021, when the topic of the big storm came up.

"At about 10:30 (a.m.), I was telling everybody that one year ago, at about this time, all hell broke loose at my place," Hill told DTN.

THUNDERSTORM COSTS BILLIONS

Other farmers can relate to Hill's experience.

Farmers across Iowa and other Corn Belt states survived what is now known as the costliest thunderstorm in U.S. history, causing billions of dollars in property and crop damage.

The storm hit wind speeds in Nebraska as high as 70 miles per hour that morning. The storm continued to pick up speed as it swept across much of Iowa, reaching speeds of more than 100 mph by the time it reached a large swath of Illinois and Wisconsin by midafternoon.

In total, the storm tracked 770 miles in 14 hours and included South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana.

In Iowa alone, at least 6 million acres of cropland sustained significant damage; farmers and communities in the Hawkeye State continue to rebuild.

Hill's crops were a near-total loss. He was able to harvest about a quarter of his corn acres but ended up leaving at least 100 bushels per acre in the damaged fields. Hill used a tandem disc to flatten what was left.

"I don't have the stats specifically, but at least in my area, there was very, very little corn harvest last fall," he said. "Most of it was zeroed out, and they tried to figure out what to do for this coming year."

RECOVERY FOR THE FARM

The Hill farm has recovered. All the debris has been cleaned up, new trees planted and there's a crop in the ground. The barn and machine sheds have been rebuilt, and there's just a bit of electrical work to finish in both buildings.

Despite dry conditions, spring planting went off without a hitch in 2021. Because of a moisture shortage, Hill decided to plant soybeans over top of what was left from last fall. The dry weather led the corn crop to not germinate until after he planted beans.

"After Memorial Day into June, we were still on the dry side of things and very concerned," he said. "But after the Fourth of July, we started to get just little showers here and there and nothing excessive like some people have had. Our yard is not brown like it was a month ago, and things look remarkably well right now."

FARMER REBUILDS

Over in Maxwell, Iowa, Trever Birchmier farms with his family. The last year has also been spent rebuilding their operation: The farm lost six grain bins and had severe damage to homes, buildings and trees.

"After the storm, you saw all of the damage and your mind races -- where do you even start?" Birchmier recalled.

The decision was made to harvest all the acres that were planted to corn. However, the process was slow, as debris in fields had to be moved. There was also some downtime with mechanical problems caused by foreign material being run through combines.

Roughly 75% to 85% of the corn yields were still in the fields after the storm, and considering what corn prices did since then, it was the right choice to harvest, he said.

The slow-moving harvest efforts also got hit by an October snowstorm, stretching central Iowa's harvest into November. Birchmier said the good news was their grain bins were replaced by then, allowing them to store their crop.

GRAIN BINS TOP OF LIST

After the derecho, because of the time of the year when the storm hit, farmers moved construction projects to the top of their lists of work to complete. There had been many grain bins damaged and destroyed. Some of the bins that had to be replaced were built beginning in the 1960s, he said.

"The ag guys around here had demolition done in August, and construction was mainly done by November," Birchmier said. "As you can imagine, bin builders have been busy all year long."

Birchmier also had a poultry layer building damaged in the windstorm. Much like his grain bins, he repaired his livestock building soon after the derecho.

Today, anyone who drives through Maxwell would struggle to see signs that the area had 130-mph winds blow through one year ago, he noted. Some farmers did not replace their bins; some concrete pads remain with no bins on them. There is also some tree damage, although summer leaves make it very difficult to see the damage now.

"About the only thing that's different is we went from 100% corn last year to 75% soybeans this growing season because of the inability to control volunteer corn after the storm," Birchmier explained. "There are way more acres of beans and less acres of corn in our area this year."

NOT ALL FARMERS MADE WHOLE

Though many farmers in the derecho's path have since mostly recovered, not all producers have been made whole.

Iowa farmers alone reported about $491 million in crop losses from the storm, according to a recent analysis by the American Farm Bureau Federation. However, Iowa farmers still have about $147.5 million in losses that weren't covered by crop insurance.

Mazon, Illinois, farmer Paul Jeschke said the derecho lasted 20 minutes on his farm in Grundy County, about 75 miles southwest of Chicago in the northeast part of the state.

The Jeschkes had grandkids visiting the house on Aug. 10 when the sky began to darken.

Just days before the derecho, Jeschke finished installing two new grain bins and a new double-stack dryer.

Once the storm passed, Jeschke and one of his granddaughters headed out to check the damage.

As Jeschke approached the grain bins, he could see its dryers still standing. The cross conveyor filling one new bin and its roof were completely gone. Another bin was completely collapsed.

His granddaughter stood beside him as he assessed the damage.

"I just stood there just taking it all in," he said. "Just shortly after, we're standing there -- I hadn't said a word yet -- the 5-year-old pulls on my pant leg and she says, 'Don't worry, Grandpa, the man who build it before, he'll just have to do it over again.'"

A year later, Jeschke's farm is practically rebuilt. The farm had one grain bin destroyed and others that were severely dented and later repaired.

He's now putting the finishing touches on a pretty good corn and soybean crop.

Since the storm hit just weeks ahead of harvest, Jeschke said farmers in his area were scrambling to have bin repairs made.

"There were close to 30 bins that were damaged so bad that they had to be repaired before they could be used, and he got all of them fixed," he said.

Temporary repairs to Jeschke's bins allowed him to complete harvest without a hitch.

"So, they made them usable for us, but they didn't make final repairs until in the wintertime, early winter," he said.

The bin vendor committed, just two days after the storm, to replace the totaled bin by Nov. 1 last year.

"We didn't actually put any grain in that new bin that he completed on the 27th of October," Jeschke said. "So, it ended up everything got completely full without having to put any grain in that new bin."

STRONGEST DERECHO IN IOWA HISTORY

Iowa State Climatologist Justin Glisan told DTN the derecho was the strongest such storm on record to hit the state.

"With 3.5 million acres of corn and 2.5 million acres of soybeans damaged or destroyed, the destruction was beyond words, especially to see it in person on multiple field tours," he said.

"The damage to urban centers from Des Moines to Cedar Rapids was gut-wrenching."

Glisan said the storm was memorable for several reasons. He was on a Zoom call early on the morning of Aug. 10 with field agronomists and Dennis Todey, the director of the Midwest Climate Hub in Ames, Iowa.

"I remarked to Dennis in a private chat that I hope a line of strong thunderstorms that was about to cross over the Nebraska-Iowa border would hold together," Glisan said.

The storm at the time was heading for an extreme drought region of west-central Iowa.

"They needed the rain, and bad," Glisan said. "We had no real idea that the line would soon turn severe and later develop into a derecho."

He said as the storm line moved east of Carroll, Iowa, it encountered an unstable atmosphere and rapidly intensified. Glisan said it became clear the storm would move through the Des Moines metro area around 11 a.m. where he and his wife, Maggie, live.

"I wanted a look at the beast and raced up the steps just in time to see day become night and headed back into the basement," he admitted. "I storm chased a few times during my undergrad years, but in all of my life, I've never been that afraid of an approaching thunderstorm."

The storm ripped through Glisan's neighborhood, tearing apart trees and knocking out gas and power lines to his home.

"The first thing I felt was a humongous crash as mortar and debris rained down on us in the basement," he said. "I then heard a hiss. I walked to the corner of the basement and noticed the smell of natural gas."

The couple rushed out of the house and jumped into their car, driving to a nearby grocery store parking lot where they spoke to a police officer.

"It wasn't until I saw the first visible satellite image in the morning that I really could see this was a monumental derecho," he said.

"What I think about most often is the strength and resilience of our farmers and Iowans in general. We held each other up and got through it."

Read more DTN coverage of the 2020 derecho: https://spotlights.dtnpf.com/…

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @DTNeeley

08/12/2021
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DTN HEADNEWS