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‘A punch in the gut’: Farmers hit by tariffs see crops swept away by flood

Record flooding has devastated a wide swath of the Midwest Farm Belt where many farmers have been struggling due to a U.S.-China trade war. (Video: Reuters)

SIDNEY, Iowa — His farm is still cut off by floodwaters, so Iowa soybean farmer Pat Sheldon had to view the damage from the air. On a helicopter ride over what seemed like an endless stretch of water, he came to a place he recognized as his own land — and saw that one of the grain silos had burst open, spilling yellow soybeans into the dingy, toxic water.

“It was like a punch in the gut,” Sheldon said.

“You work hard planting, taking care of these beans and harvesting them. Then, to have that happen makes you almost physically ill,” he said. “But I haven’t had time to get mad — too many responsibilities and people that need still need help.”

Although the water has yet to recede enough for a true examination, Sheldon says more than $350,000 of his corn and soybeans is in jeopardy, and he worries he may lose the farm that’s been in his family for generations.

Before the terrible “bomb cyclone” sent warm rain down on frozen ground, resulting in catastrophic flooding throughout the Midwest and displacing thousands, American farmers were already struggling after several seasons of low commodity prices and the continuing trade war with China. In towns along the overflowing Mississippi and Missouri rivers, farmers are seeing their crops — and their futures — swept away by floodwaters.

In Nebraska, Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) has called the flooding “the most widespread destruction we have ever seen in our state’s history.” Iowa has more than 100,000 acres of farmland still underwater. Officials from both states say the damage estimates are more than $1 billion and counting.

“It’s devastating for a lot of these folks, there’s no doubt about it,” said Jeff Jorgenson, a farmer and board member of the Iowa Soybean Association. “Essentially, it’s two years of negative; these farmers lost what was stored in the bins and won’t be able to plant next year’s crop. So it’s going to be really tough for a lot of people.”

But, he added, “if we get the opportunity, we’ll go to work.”

Some farmers had more soybeans in storage this year than normal, according to Frayne Olson, a crop economist and marketing specialist with North Dakota State University. The government estimates there are more than 3.7 billion bushels of soybeans still in storage — a record — partly because Chinese purchases of the grain have plummeted in recent months during the ongoing tariff war.

Iowa farmers have about 528 million bushels in storage, up 8 percent from the previous year, while Nebraska had 13 percent more grain stored, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department’s estimate.

“A lot of farmers have not been selling, hoping for better prices and some kind of trade agreement,” Olson said.

The Missouri River is continuing its destructive course south into Missouri where Gov. Mike Parson (R) declared a state of emergency, as governors have already done in Iowa, Wisconsin and hard-hit Nebraska.

The river is expected to crest this weekend in Atchison, Kan., and state officials urged residents of at-risk towns to evacuate.

Threats are emerging from the north over the next week, where warmer weather is causing snow to melt rapidly in the Dakotas and Minnesota, releasing vast quantities of water into streams and rivers, meaning some areas will have little chance to dry out before a new deluge arrives.

In Sioux Falls, S.D., the Big Sioux River is expected to have two crests — one late Monday and another on Friday. The Mississippi will likely peak later in the week in St. Paul, Minn. Ten miles to the south, the city of Cottage Grove declared an emergency in anticipation of flooding from the river, which is expected to peak there on March 30.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned people to prepare for a prolonged disaster.

“The stage is set for record flooding now through May,” said Mary C. Erickson, deputy director of NOAA’s National Weather Service. Edward Clark, director of NOAA’s National Water Center, called it “potentially an unprecedented flood season.”

There are some 40,000 soybean farmers in Iowa. In the past several years, 1 in 3 rows of soybeans have been sent to China, meaning farmers were heavily impacted after China virtually stopped buying American soybeans last year, according to the Iowa Soybean Association.

But some of the farmers who gathered Thursday at the Silver Spur Bar and Grill in Iowa’s Fremont County — a population of about 7,400 — didn’t want to talk about tariffs, saying they felt their plight was being used to fuel political debate on cable news shows and by Washington.

“We like what the president’s doing,” Sheldon said. “As the farmer sees it, we’ve had times a lot worse for grain prices as we’ve got right now. We know China’s been screwing us for years, not only on farm products but on technology. We know we can duck our heads and pull our boots on and get through this, and, in the long run, the whole country is going to be better off.”

The farmers said they were more concerned with the way the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was handling the management of the river. They said they received little warning from the Corps before levees breached and their land was flooded, and many did not have time to move their grain to safety.

“Our story is that we’re devastated. We’re faced with losing a whole year’s income, maybe two,” said Brian Johnson, 57. “We’ve got a problem with the way the river is being managed. How are we going to recover? How can we keep our land and continue to farm?”

The Army Corps of Engineers has long been criticized for a plan to control the Missouri River that farmers say prioritizes wildlife protection over flood control. A federal claims court judge ruled last year that Corps policies contributed to some flooding. After touring flood damage in Missouri last week, Parson said it was time to “reevaluate” the Corps’ management of the Missouri River.

A spokesman for the Corps’ office in Omaha did not return calls for comment.

“We’ve had no real communication from the Corps of Engineers since this started,” said Mike Crecelius, the emergency management coordinator for Fremont County.

He estimates that there have been 14 breaches in their levees alone, causing $147 million in damage — more than $100 million from farm crops and equipment.

“It’s been one big nightmare,” he said.

Sellers reported from Washington.