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Iowa Floods Wreak Havoc on Farming Communities

June 20, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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After heavy rains triggered massive flooding in Iowa, some farms were completely submerged, causing heavy crop and livestock losses. Elizabeth Brackett reports on how one Iowa farmer is coping with the damage.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT, NewsHour Correspondent: Jeff Boyer never imagined that one day he would be riding over his corn fields in a fishing boat. But early Thursday morning, he and his wife, Barb, were doing just that, as they went to assess the damage to what had been a highly productive 1,000-acre family farm.

The farm sat just below the convergence of the Iowa and Mississippi Rivers near the tiny town of Oakville, Iowa. Five days earlier, the Boyers and their neighbors lost a frantic battle to save their homes and farms when the levee that had held back the Iowa River broke, submerging the entire town of Oakville and flooding 17,000 acres of prime farmland.

JEFF BOYER, Farmer: I believe, right through there, you see a set of roofs. I believe that’s my other hog building.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In the days leading up to the levee break, Boyer managed to move out last year’s corn from the silos, but there was no place to take his 3,500 hogs. As the rivers were rising, he and his family tried to turn the pigs loose to fend for themselves, but with no success.

JEFF BOYER: I was trying to push some sows out the door so that they would have a chance to live. And the current — I don’t know if they were panicking, but they were — you were putting them out the door, and they were coming back in the door, actually, and knocking you over. So we had to make the decision that we probably needed to start getting back out of there.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Was it pretty hard to walk away?

JEFF BOYER: It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Boyers, like all those who farm in flood plains, knew there were risks. Still, they were stunned when the levee gave way. After all, the last time the area had lost a levee was in 1947. Even in the great flood of 1993, the Oakville levees had held.

They were so confident of the levees they bought neither flood insurance or crop insurance, although they did have a policy that would pay if the hogs died.

BARB BOYER, Farmer: Did we think we’d flood? Of course not, who — I mean, not to this devastation. You know, maybe a foot or two, I was thinking, or, you know, something like that, but not like this.

Coping with home, livestock loss

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Boyers thought all of their pigs had died, but on Wednesday night, they heard from an animal rescue group which had been out searching for stranded pets.

RICHARD CROOK, Animal Rescuer: One of our trips -- I think it was our first trip out this morning, about 5:30 -- we saw, as we were driving by, we saw the pigs, the little pink dots, all along this one barn over here. So we swung in there and, sure enough, it was just loaded with probably close to 250 to 300 pigs.

JEFF BOYER: When they started telling people, started telling them about how all the -- there's pigs around and everything, I was just kind of flabbergasted, so -- but we're going to find out.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Boyer and some fellow pig farmers took up the offer of a barge from a local contractor and went out to see for themselves. What they found was stunning and heartbreaking.

JEFF BOYER: This is a mess.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: After five days in the water, hundreds of pigs were dead, but others had managed to survive. The difficult, dirty and dangerous job of getting the pigs out of the highly contaminated river water began.

The pigs, exhausted but terrified, struggled as they were lifted onto the barge. Others were wrestled into the boat.

As the rescue work continued, Barb Boyer confronted an equally daunting task: checking on the home she and her husband had built just 10 years ago.

Better or worse than you thought?

BARB BOYER: Worse. I never dreamt it would be this high.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: As high as the water was, it appeared it had not gotten to the second floor where the Boyers had taken many of their belongings. The same could not be said for her in-law's house next door.

Despite the devastation, Boyer, like many who farm in these flood plains, says she does not expect much government help.

BARB BOYER: We've always lived our life that, you know, we're responsible for our own choices, our own destiny, and, you know, we chose not to carry the flood insurance. That was our responsibility. There's a lot of people that now -- of course, we are going to need help, but do I expect it? No. So we'll start over; that's all I know right now. I know farming will always be Jeff's life, so that won't change.

Ripple effects of corn damage

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: These three acres of corn are all that Boyer has left of the 800 acres he planted this year. He's completely wiped out, as is everyone else here in this 17,000-acre bottom area.

Now, in other Iowa farm fields that were not quite as flooded, some of that corn may be saved as the fields dry out. But all in all, Iowa lost 15 percent to 20 percent of its corn, a loss that will be felt not only here in Iowa, but around the country.

JIM JENSEN, Iowa State University: And this is some of our better corn right here.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: That's because Iowa supplies more corn to the country than any other state, says farm economist Jim Jensen.

JIM JENSEN: A lot of people depend on Iowa for their feed grains. A lot of the ethanol plants that were built like in California and other states away from Iowa were planning on importing our corn to make their ethanol. A lot of cattle feeders import corn from Iowa to feed their cattle. So it will have a ripple effect that will go on throughout a good part of the U.S.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The tighter corn supplies have already driven corn prices to record highs on the trading floors of the Chicago exchanges. Like more and more farmers, Boyer had tried to use the futures exchange to lessen his own risk. He had already sold this year's corn.

But now, with nearly his entire crop under water, not only will he not get paid, he will have to pay the buyer the difference between the agreed-on price and the current higher price of corn, compounding his losses.

His hog losses were also mounting. There was a glimmer of hope when some of the pigs were found alive, but after more than an hour of pulling the waterlogged animals out of the water, Boyer and the other farmers reassessed the situation.

Making difficult decisions

FARMER: I mean, it's a great effort, and we tried real hard, and I'm happy for everybody that tried, but it's time to put the pigs' suffering to an end. I've got a gun.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The farmers decided it would be most humane to kill the ones that remained. The pigs on the barge were brought ashore and transferred to a waiting truck. But Boyer said most of those were not worth saving.

JEFF BOYER: Out of all those pigs there, there's maybe one or two pigs that are any good. And then you have to wonder, with all the diesel fuel and the propane and all the chemicals, I don't think the consumer wants to eat any of that.

So, you know, what are we going to do with them? They'll probably all be euthanized, and that's the proper thing to do there, too.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: It had been a long week for Boyer. He had faced some of the toughest decisions he had ever had to make.

JEFF BOYER: The hogs was really difficult. I mean, the decisions I had to make there has made me sick.

And my family is OK; the house can be rebuilt. But losing a live animal is just something that -- that's extremely tough to handle. So, I mean, that's just what I do for a living. I mean, I'm a grain farmer, but I like to raise hogs more than I like to raise corn and beans.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But it will be at least a year before Boyer or anyone else in this area will be either growing crops or raising livestock.