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For some Nebraska farmers, devastating floods threaten their livelihood

Record flooding in parts of the Midwest in March caused immense damage to agriculture. Water is still standing in fields where failed river levees have not yet been repaired. For some farmers and ranchers, already facing low commodity prices, tariffs and taxes, it’s a compounded level of stress driving record numbers to seek professional help. Nebraska PBS station NET's Jack Williams reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    In another part of the country, farmers are trying to dry out and rebuild after record flooding last month.

    Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to visit the Midwest tomorrow to speak with farmers and ranchers, who face an already tough agricultural environment, now made worse by high water.

    As Jack Williams of PBS station NET in Nebraska reports, this year's planting season will be challenging for many farmers.

  • Tom Geisler:

    Floodwater went right through our place here, and it took a gully right out of the middle of the place.

  • Jack Williams:

    In Hooper, in Northeast Nebraska, the floodwater has gone down, but for farmers like Tom Geisler, the work has just begun.

  • Tom Geisler:

    Our water lines for our cattle are laid right here, and it took the water line right out of the ground.

  • Jack Williams:

    He's farmed this land, about 400 acres, for the past 42 years, and he's never seen anything like this.

  • Tom Geisler:

    Just devastation wherever you look.

  • Jack Williams:

    Before the flood, many Midwest farmers like Geisler were dealing with challenges such as low commodity prices, trade tariffs and high property taxes. Added to their already heavy burden, the high waters will likely delay planting season set to start this month.

    The water is even threatening some of last year's crops, stored away in bins that are now soaked. That could lead to even more lost income.

  • Tom Geisler:

    Just trying to get corn out of the bin, we can't get corn out of the bin, because it's wet on the bottom. We got to get it out of there.

  • Jack Williams:

    Geisler also raises cattle, and was amazed most of them survived several days of standing in ice-cold water, with nothing to eat, because their hay had been washed away.

    He lost only two cows and a couple of calves.

    How do you pull yourself up after something like this?

  • Tom Geisler:

    Keep going. That's all you can do. If you don't keep going, our business will be gone.

  • Jack Williams:

    In the Southeast Nebraska town of Peru, along the Missouri River, getting back into his fields, or even his farm, won't be easy for Brett Adams. Levees along the river failed, and rising waters flooded his farmland. He was finally able to check things out on a boat.

  • Brett Adams:

    Over here is our main shop. This is kind of our farming headquarters, where literally everything happens, shop, machinery storage, this and that.

  • Jack Williams:

    Adams grows corn and soybeans with his father on 2,000 acres, but there's a good chance he won't plant anything this year. He's a relatively young farmer who missed the farm crisis in the 1980s, but still knows the ups and downs of the agriculture economy.

  • Brett Adams:

    We don't know how long it's going to take to repair these levees and the water to go away and this and that, so it's a big — it's going to be a hurt for a lot of people, me included.

  • Jack Williams:

    Adams, who's married and has two kids, says he will make it, but some might not.

  • Brett Adams:

    You get to a point, you're just like, you can't take it any longer. But you got to keep fighting. We don't — like, me, I don't know how to do anything else. I was born, raised on a farm, and this is my livelihood, and, emotionally, financially, I have got everything invested in this.

  • Jack Williams:

    For some farmers already dealing with financial uncertainty before the flood, adding another layer of hardship is more than they can take. They have been calling the Rural Response Hotline, the oldest farm crisis hot line in the nation.

  • John Hansen:

    This last year, we set four new all-time monthly highs for the most new first-time high-stress phone callers.

  • Jack Williams:

    John Hansen is the president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, and has been involved with the hot line since 1984.

  • John Hansen:

    So this is the worst ag turndown since the mid-1980s, so there's a great need, of course, for services right now. And then, of course, the flood just makes all that even more so.

  • Jack Williams:

    Farmers and ranchers are faced with potentially losing their only source of income. Many are dealing with mental health issues and increased stress.

  • John Hansen:

    It's their identity, in addition to being a high-risk, capital-intensive, low-margin business.

  • Jack Williams:

    Chapter 12 farm bankruptcies in the Midwest were up 19 percent last year, compared to 2017, although the numbers nationwide were actually down slightly, according to U.S. bankruptcy court statistics.

    Creighton University economist Ernie Goss compiles a monthly economic survey for Midwest states, and says, for the most part, farmers entered the latest downturn in good shape. And, he says, despite the current tough times, long-term, they're in a good business.

  • Ernie Goss:

    There's one thing we all need, and that's food. And that's globally. It doesn't matter if you're in China, India, France or Germany, wherever. They need food, and they need it from the most productive farmers on the face of the earth, and that's the farmers in this nation, the U.S. and the farmers in the Midwest.

  • Jack Williams:

    At the Nebraska Farm Bureau, president Steve Nelson says, during the downturn in the 1980s, high interest rates and more farm debt drove a lot of farmers out of business.

    Now, he says, higher costs for pretty much everything, along with tighter margins and now bad weather, are combining to make things rough for farmers.

  • Steve Nelson:

    It might be a year or two before some operations figure out that they just aren't going to be able to recover from an event like we have had.

  • Jack Williams:

    Back in Hooper, Nebraska, Tom Geisler is hopeful.

  • Tom Geisler:

    You just have to be resilient and keep going, and hopefully it will work out for us this year.

  • Jack Williams:

    For many farmers in the Midwest, this summer crop season may be the most challenging they have ever seen.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jack Williams in Hooper, Nebraska.

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