A year after derecho's record-setting damage, Iowa farmers are still dealing with the aftermath

Donnelle Eller
Des Moines Register

Corn plants blanketed Morey Hill's fields last fall. But they weren't part of the record harvest he had been expecting.

They were sprouting from millions of seeds left in the wake of the hurricane-force winds of the derecho that blew through the central third of Iowa a year ago.

The carpet of green fuzz would have been an impressive cover crop, Hill said, if it didn't represent the loss of his crop, flattened in the deadly Aug. 10 storm that swept across the state, ripping through homes, farms and businesses.

"The corn was looking so good and it just got flattened," said Hill, 70, who witnessed the storm roaring through his farmstead, listening with his wife, Rhonda, to the twist and crack of shattering trees above the wind's scream. Their 400 acres of cropland were among 6 million damaged in Iowa.

More:'It's painful': Cedar Rapids still recovering from loss of 669,000 trees, damage to 6,000 homes in derecho

Though the derecho ended Hill's hopes for a record crop, it did set another record: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration termed it "the costliest thunderstorm in U.S. history," causing $11.5 billion in damage along its 770-mile course from South Dakota and Nebraska to Ohio.

Iowa families and businesses, the hardest hit, have filed 225,000 claims for $3 billion in damage from the storm, the Iowa Insurance Division reports. Another 18,000 claims are outstanding, the agency says.

That total doesn't include the $562 million that Iowa farmers claimed through federal insurance for damage to corn, soybeans and other crops from the derecho, drought and other extreme weather last year, U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows.

More:Iowa farmers absorbed $243 million in losses from last year's devastating drought, derecho, new tally says

Losses were likely higher, since most farmers don't insure the total value of their crops. The American Farm Bureau Federation estimates Iowa lost about $802 million in crops and pasture due to severe weather, with farmers absorbing about $240 million of the losses. U.S. House and Senate committees recently included farmers hit by the derecho in bills providing assistance to Americans who experienced natural disasters in 2020 and this year.  

Crews from Mid-States Millwright & Builders work on rebuilding the Key Cooperative's Le Grand location, near Marshalltown, on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Several of the co-op's locations were damaged in the Aug. 10, 2020, derecho that swept through Iowa.

"Thank God for insurance or we wouldn’t be farming this year," said Tim Bardole, who farms with his dad and son near Hill in Greene County, where winds in some areas hit 100 mph. Bardole lost about half of his 1,200 acres of corn; Hill's loss amounted to about two-thirds of his 200 corn acres.

More:Iowa farm bankruptcies climb to 10-year high, even with $2 billion in government aid, but outlook is improving

Even after months of picking twisted metal debris from fields, cutting up fallen trees and rebuilding and repairing homes, grain bins, barns and buildings, the work continues for many Iowa farmers and elevators, said Mike Naig, Iowa's agriculture secretary.

High costs for steel and other materials and labor shortages have slowed the recovery, Naig said. Wrecked bins at grain elevators and farms are the most obvious sign of the remaining work. 

"You can still see the impact of that damage when you're out in the countryside," Naig said.

Bardole, who still must replace patched roofs and siding, said it will take time to replant the groves of trees that saved his and his father's farms from worse damage. "There's not a lot left," said the 53-year-old. "It won't be the same in my lifetime."

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'It's a day I'll never forget'

A crew was finishing some of the last work needed on Key Cooperative's new 400,000-bushel grain storage facility in Le Grand when the derecho hit.

About 45 minutes later, all but one bin was destroyed, along with towers, conveyors and other grain-moving infrastructure, said Matt Brown, who manages the elevator, located east of Marshalltown.

The new bin was a tangled mass of steel. "That was a punch to the gut," said Brown, who called his boss, Jason Dubberke, and told him: "We're gone. And we're a month and a half away from bringing in the crop."

More:How can Iowa farmers combat the hurricane-force winds of a derecho? Plant shorter, more wind-resistant corn

The storm's timing couldn't have been worse for Iowa farmers and elevators. They were emptying grain from bins to make way for the new crop, leaving the structures even more vulnerable to the derecho's straight-line winds, which hit nearly 130 mph near Cedar Rapids. Without the grain to anchor them, huge bins crumpled like soda cans.

Crews from Mid-States Millwright & Builders work on rebuilding the Key Cooperative's Le  Grand location, near Marshalltown, on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. The location was one of many the organization lost to the Aug. 10, 2020, derecho that swept through Iowa.

Iowa farmers and elevators lost about 100 million bushels of storage, costing about $300 million to replace or repair, the Iowa Department of Agriculture says.

Heartland Cooperative, based in West Des Moines, lost roughly 37 million bushels of capacity, about half of which had to be replaced, said Bill Chizek, Heartland's director of safety and compliance.

With about half of the co-op's 80 locations damaged, "It was overwhelming how many facilities were hit," Chizek said. Two locations — Chelsea and Elberon, just east of Le Grand — were complete losses.

More:Iconic Quaker Oats sign, damaged by last year's derecho, again lights up Cedar Rapids skyline

Key Cooperative lost storage for 6 million bushels of corn and soybeans in Kelley, Le Grand, Nevada and Zearing. All but 1 million bushels of that capacity was destroyed and needed to be rebuilt — about a third of the co-op's total at those four locations.

Almost all of Key's 13 locations had some damage, including the co-op's headquarters near Roland. "It's a day I'll never forget," said Dubberke, Key Cooperative's grain manager.

No Key or Heartland's employees, contractors or customers were injured, though three people died in the storm in Iowa.

Both Heartland and Key immediately brought in crews to render the elevator locations safe for employees to begin cleaning debris and repairing the bins and buildings. That meant removing hanging steel structures and massive trees limbs. Heartland had to remove a collapsed bin from a nearby railroad, Chizek said.

"It was difficult to know where all the debris came from," said Key's Brown.

Crews from Mid-States Millwright & Builders work on rebuilding the Key Cooperative's Le Grand location, near Marshalltown, on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Several of the co-op's locations were damaged in the Aug. 10, 2020, derecho that swept through Iowa.

Key and Heartland worked to salvage as much storage as possible for the incoming harvest.

Key already had added outside and inside storage space, expecting a bumper crop, Brown said. But even with farmers hauling in only a quarter or so of their harvest, every employee with a commercial driver's license was pressed into service driving semi trucks.

"It was a dance, figuring out how many bushels of grain I had sitting on wheels" waiting to be dumped or moved out, Brown said.

Steel costs have doubled; labor in short supply

Mid-States Millwright & Builders Inc. got a call from a farm customer to rebuild a grain bin even before the massive storm had cleared Iowa on Aug. 10, said Chris Schaudt, the company's vice president of sales.

Based in the Story County town of Nevada, the company has since rebuilt and repaired 27 million bushels of grain storage in Iowa for farmers and cooperatives like Key and Heartland.

Mid-States decided to expand its manufacturing facility so it could more quickly get needed grain-handling equipment to Iowa locations, Schaudt said. It also rerouted materials and equipment from projects in other parts of the country delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

That's helped the family-owned company hold down prices, especially for steel, which has doubled in cost during the health crisis, Schaudt said. He added that Mid-States' crews worked seven days a week last fall.

Steve Sukup, CEO of Sukup Manufacturing Co., said the Sheffield maker of grain bins saw a rush of orders following the derecho. Demand for the iconic bins has been strong, not only due to the storm but also because of elevated corn, soybean and wheat prices, he said.

The company has added production capability, buying a nearby competitor to meet the demand. The workforce has climbed to a high of 770 with the addition of about 80 employees over the past year.

"It's been a struggle" to find workers, Sukup said, adding that the company recently gave each employee a $500 retention and appreciation bonus.

Chizek said Heartland will have replaced all the destroyed grain bins by this fall. However, the co-op will finish other repairs over the next two or three years, in the hope that prices will drop and labor will become more available.

Sukup said the company and its competitors have passed along increased steel prices to customers as U.S. steel producers have increased costs to match a 25% U.S. tariff on imported steel. And prices have continued to rise.

"Steel mills have raised prices because they can," said Sukup, who has asked congressional leaders to investigate what he views as anticompetitive activity within the steel industry.

Fallen corn remains a problem

Bardole, who farms near Rippey in central Iowa, said last year's harvest was a struggle.

Much of his family's bin-busting corn harvest lay on the ground. The hail that came with the derecho stripped nearly half his 1,100 acres of soybeans, pushing yields down to 5 to 12 bushels an acre. Greene County's 10-year average is 51 bushels.

Bardole also racked up $20,000 in equipment damage from storm debris as he and his family tried to harvest fallen corn.

More:Photos: Meskwaki community members finding new use for derecho damaged trees.

The derecho — and the drought that began last year and continues this summer — meant Iowa farmers harvested 11% less corn last year, at 2.3 billion bushels — and 2% fewer soybeans, at 494 million bushels. Still, Iowa led the nation in corn production, a title it's held for 27 consecutive years. Iowa also remains the second-largest soybean grower.

Bardole's battle will continue next year. With roughly half the state experiencing a moderate or severe drought, much of the corn that fell last year remains on the ground and has not yet germinated.

Many farmers tilled under corn that couldn't be harvested last fall, wanting to reduce the amount of "volunteer corn" they would see as they rotated to soybean production this year. Bardole's family used a "crimper" — a big roller that's typically used instead of herbicides to kill cover crops in the spring — to break up the flattened corn, since they haven't tilled their soil in about 30 years.

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Some corn emerged last fall and this spring, but "about 90% is still laying on the ground," said Bardole, who is worried that some of the corn could get picked up as he harvests soybeans, ruining the portion of the crop sold for a premium price as seed.

And Bardole won't be able to use herbicide to spray volunteer corn next year, since he will rotate soybean fields back to corn.

More:Iowa farmers are cautious about taking advantage of rising crop prices as drought concerns deepen during planting

Still, he sees a couple of bright spots from last year's storm: His son sheltered at a family's hog confinement, a decision that kept him from getting hit when power poles were downed on the highway he would have traveled.

And an oak tree his grandfather planted from an acorn survived, even though most of his groves were destroyed.

"It's been there a long time," Bardole said.

Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at deller@registermedia.com or 515-284-8457.