Mid-Mich. farmers struggle to recover from flooding

Jo Kroeker
The Detroit News

Uncertainty hangs like this week’s rainclouds over farmland in mid-Michigan, Saginaw Valley and the Thumb as farmers weigh whether they should replant drowning crops or wait for drier weather.

Forecasts of more wet weather muddy any decision-making. Meantime, crops in low-lying fields remain vulnerable to root rot and drowning out, even after most of the water from Thursday night’s storm receded after 36 hours.

Farmers, who should be planting dry beans (like red, black and pinto) now, wait skeptically for drier conditions, as this week’s predicted rains could turn into another 1-3 inches, spelling potential crop failure.

According to the National Weather Service, there’s a chance of rain the next three days in mid-Michigan.

“Last Friday was a bad day for a good number of people,” said Kate Thiel, a field crops and advisory specialist with the Michigan Farm Bureau. “Farmers are now asking, ‘OK, how do I make the best of it?’ ”

The rains affected field crops, also known as row crops — commodities for livestock, rather than human, consumption, Thiel said. Fruits and vegetables are grown in nurseries and greenhouses in the western part of the state, which hasn’t experienced the same hazardous weather.

Thiel said farmers will have some semblance of a crop, but impact varies farm by farm and farmers won’t know the extent until a few weeks from now at minimum, but most likely at harvest, when side effects like disease can be seen.

State and nationwide stockpiles mean consumers are unlikely to feel meat purchases in their wallets. Thiel predicted prices will probably stay down because row crop states like Iowa, Indiana and Ohio weren’t doused like mid-Michigan, news that is good for consumers but bad for farmers trying to make a profit in a down market.

Consumers will feel it indirectly, Thiel said: “If losses are big enough that people go out of business, damage to row crops means damage to someone’s livelihood.”

Parts of Isabella and Midland counties recorded 72-hour totals of 8 inches or more, with seven-day totals of 12 inches. In Saginaw Valley and the Thumb, seven-day totals reached 10 inches or more.

State officials have declared a state of disaster in Bay, Gladwin, Isabella and Midland counties following a storm Thursday night and Friday that caused widespread damage and flooding.

All four counties have declared states of emergency, a step that enables them to ask for state and federal relief funds.

Gov. Rick Snyder said federal officials will conduct an assessment with local entities to look at damages and response costs. Synder said in a Wednesday statement that the Federal Emergency Management Agency granted the state’s request, which is another step toward asking for federal assistance.

The floods came after one month of drought-like conditions, from mid-May to mid-June.

The southern tier of Michigan, encompassing Monroe and Washtenaw counties, continues to experience this dryness, preventing roots from taking hold. To make matters worse, the region had a wet spring that pushed planting back.

“We needed rain, but not as much as we got,” said Ben Bryant, a beef and cash crop farmer in Shepherd. His Isabella County farm received 8 inches of rain during Thursday night’s storm, bringing the week’s rain total to 13.2 inches.

According to Bryant, corn can be underwater for about three days before dying, unlike soybeans, which can drown more quickly. Dry beans in particular need drier conditions for the roots to take hold.

Any crop in pools of stagnant water becomes susceptible to root rot: Too much water and too little oxygen to aerate the roots will cause mold to grow and attract insects and the diseases they bring.

Days after the flooding, Bryant said farmers face different problems: “Now, flooding isn’t the issue, it’s delayed planting.”

Wet conditions stop planting for dry bean and cucumber growers who have yet to seed the land and stop replanting for farmers with corn, soybean and dry bean crops jeopardized by rain.

In situations like this one, farmers have a myriad of considerations to weigh: whether to reserve the seed they have; plant varieties with shorter growing periods to make harvest; plant a different, hardier plant; to waste seed if rain comes again, or take the chance under pressure to satisfy a contract’s bushel count.

“Farmers are the ultimate risk takers,” Thiel said. “When life hands them lemons, they do their best,” whether that’s buying insurance, diversifying crops or investing in new technology — a farmer’s only bulwark against the weather.”

Jerry Neyer, a dairy farmer and longtime board member of the Isabella County Farm Bureau, said crop insurance doesn’t replace lost income, but it does help replace planting costs. Still, it’s a lengthy process farmers try to avoid.

Once Calley declared a state of disaster, however, Neyer said there is a possibility farmers could receive state funding.

U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, and other officials asked Snyder to request federal emergency aid.

“As local and state officials continue to assess the damage, I am working with federal agencies to make sure they are ready to help should the state deem it necessary,” Moolenaar said. “... Residents who have damaged property should report it to their local officials and insurance companies so they can accurately assess the impact of this flooding.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is monitoring the situation.

Until the U.S. Department of Agriculture declares a state of disaster, farmers cannot file for federal funds.

The USDA typically reserves its judgment of “state of disaster” for harvest time, compounding the uncertainty Michigan farmers currently face and the knowledge that real damage can only be assessed come harvest time: August to September for dry beans and October for corn and soybeans.

But pumping out water, relying on crops more resistant to root rot and cashing in on insurance or state and federal funding can only go so far, and farmers like Bryant still express resignation to the whims of the water.

“There’s not a lot we can do except wait for the water to recede,” Bryant said.

Ultimately, the best farmers can hope for right now is cool, breezy weather with sunshine, Thiel said. That way, the water will dry without becoming warm, stagnant water, which attracts more bugs and consequently, more disease.

“Hopefully, we don’t see this again anytime soon,” Bryant said.


Associated Press contributed to this report.