June storm caused $10-$15 million in crop damage

Jerry Neyer poses on Dec. 5 near a section of one of his corn crops that was damaged by summer flooding.

Flooding caused by the June thunderstorms represented one of the costliest agricultural disasters in Isabella County history. Updated damage estimates show between $10-$15 million in losses to local farmers. 

These farmers are still feeling the effects months later. A damage estimate released by the Isabella County Emergency Operations Center listed the cost to the area to be about $87 million, a number that included damage to agriculture, public property and private property. Agriculture made up $21 million of the initial estimate, though the total was raised to $28 million in the following weeks after deeper examinations were done. 

Despite dire predictions, Michigan State University Extension educator Paul Gross said actual harm done to local crops will be lower than anticipated.

"There's impact, but certainly not what we thought we were going to get at the time (when) we were standing up to our ankles in water," Gross said.

Most crops have finished their harvesting season as of Nov. 30. Gross said estimates for county-wide damages might end up being closer to $10-15 million, though final results won't come in until crop yields are totaled in January 2018.  

Abe Pasch, president of the Isabella County Farm Bureau, said losses to his crops fell short of what he was anticipating during the summer.

"My preliminary thought was things were going to be really bad, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be," Pasch said. "(In the summer) there were obviously some areas where the plants were gone. There were some other areas on the fringe of the flooding area where you didn’t know how well it was going to turn out."

Gross attributes the difference between the estimates to the fact that a flooded field can make farmers jump to negative conclusions, which doesn't always reflect an accurate outcome.

"When you're standing there looking at a field that's underwater and asked to make a loss-prediction, compared to once you actually put the combine in the field at the end of the year, they're two completely different things," Gross said.

Pasch, who plants corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa, cites the unexpected "buoyancy" of crops for why the damages fell short of estimates. 

He added the warmer than average months of September and October gave some local farmers the opportunity to replant crops they thought they had lost.

Gross said it was lucky for local agriculture that the flooding happened during a time of year with cooler temperatures and overcast skies. 

When there's more sunlight, Gross said, plants that are underwater still go through photosynthesis. This would have meant the plants would have needed to draw more oxygen out of the air.

Farmers of dry beans and wheat felt some negative consequences resulting from the flood. More than half of dry bean crops were not planted as a direct result of the flood, Gross said. Wheat yields were also down by a margin of 12-15 fewer bushels than average.

Some corn crops were also affected. Union Township farmer Randy Recker lost as much as 30 acres of crops between soybeans and corn. Recker said rainfall in October disrupted crop production as much as the flooding had.

"We got about 13-14 inches (of rain) in June, but when you come back with almost 10 inches in the fall, that almost made everything harder than the flood did," Recker said.

Recker, who has been a farmer for about 45 years, said the June flooding ranks among the most damaging he has ever experienced, even higher than the massive flood that struck the area in September 1986.

"(During the 1986 flood), all the crops were there (in the fields), it was just a matter of trying to get (the crops) out," Recker said. "We finished up around January trying to get stuff out – damage-wise it probably didn’t do quite as much, it just made it a lot more miserable trying to do work."

Union Township dairy farmer Jerry Neyer said he lost between 10 to 20 percent of his corn crop as a direct result of the flooding.

"We probably lost $50,000 in our corn that we’ll either have to replace or go out and purchase if we fall short for feeding our cattle," Neyer said.

Despite the loss to corn, Neyer said his hay yields turned out higher than expected. He credits the higher performance of hay crops compared to corn to the bigger root mass hay crops have beneath them, which prevented soil from washing away along with fertilizer. 

"The water didn’t wash (soil) away like it did where there was more exposed ground in the corn and soybean fields," Neyer said. "Even if it didn’t look like the corn had been washed away or damaged initially by the water, because we didn’t have the fertilizer that we put in that spring, our crops just ran out of food and energy to finish out the season. We lost our tonnage from that."

As of Nov. 21, the U.S. Department of Agriculture listed Isabella among 10 counties in Michigan that qualified as primary natural disaster areas due to damage caused by excessive rain occurring between May 4 and Aug. 4. 

According to the USDA Farm Service Agency's website, farmers in eligible counties have eight months from the date of the declaration to apply for loans.

More information regarding eligibility can be found on the Farm Service Agency's website.