For years, Gordon Stoner’s rule for keeping the rain-soaked Northeast Montana soil from swallowing his tractor was to “turn when the ducks fly,” meaning nothing short of a pond would cause him to turn the wheel.
Then the record rains of 2011 turned his fields to soup and kept his tractor in the barn for all but 41 hours over a three-week stretch in May. When he finally got into the field, his tractor’s heavy wheels flattened the fooded groundhog tunnels below. Water shot like geysers from the prairie dog holes.
“I have never entertained the thought of not getting a crop in,” Stoner said. “You eat an elephant one bite at a time. You just gnaw away at it, but we’ve got rain in the forecast and if we get much more, I don’t know.”
It takes a lot to get a Montana farmer to curse the rain, but some are beginning to. Hundreds of thousands of acres have gone unplanted due to unprecedented rains and the number of growing days needed to produce a crop is quickly dwindling. In addition, federal officials now estimate 1.4 million Montana acres--an area slightly larger than Glacier National Park--has been hit by flooding.
Stoner, who would normally have fields seeded by mid-May, is instead sipping coffee at Rusty’s Café in Plentywood, trying to forget the high-risk game the weather has backed him into. He desperately wants to get in his tractor and, as farmers put it, “turn a wheel.”
It takes 90 to 120 days to raise a durum wheat crop. Stoner has circled June 20 as his point of no return, but the possibility of going to harvest in early October is unsettling. Relentless rains are an anomaly in Montana. Early winter kills aren’t.
Irrigation systems battered
Raging rivers have chewed through some of Montana’s largest irrigation systems, in some cases costing millions of dollars in damage farmers say they cannot afford. If the canals don’t pulse with water again soon, drought may be a problem for some.
“Water is the No. 1 resource you can put on a crop. If you had the best seed in the world and you put it in dry land and you had a drought, that plant would try to produce one seed so it could survive, but without water it wouldn't do anything else,” said Dan Vogel, manager of Huntley Project irrigation system northeast of Billings.
Huntley’s 458 miles of canals and ditches are the arteries of the Yellowstone Valley heartland, but currently they have no pulse. That’s because May floodwaters caused a surging Pryor Creek to punch a hole through a massive section of the canal. At a minimum, repairs are expected to cost $150,000 to $250,000 for a quick fix, but Vogel expects any lasting repairs to cost $2 million.
The 800 farmers who depend on the irrigation project and contribute $17.5 million a year to the local economy can’t cover the canal repair costs on their own, Vogel said. So, Huntley Project is turning to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help.
However FEMA doesn’t cover irrigation losses unless there’s a public drinking water hook. Huntley is arguing that the communities of Worden and Ballantine use an aquifer completely recharged by the canal and the flood irrigating done by farmers south of the Yellowstone River.
Aid or not, the canal needs to be flowing again by month’s end when rains are expected to dry up and crops ranging from corn to sugar beets begin to feel the summer heat. Vogel is holding firm to having water flowing again by July 1, with extensive repairs to come as summer unfolds.
Other canal systems are unlikely to qualify for federal aid. At the Musselshell County community of Delphia, canal manager Lynn Rettig is scrambling to get the Delphia Canal flowing again. Record rains sent the Musselshell River to ripping through canal walls and caused other sections of the irrigation system to collapse after taking on too much water.
“Right beyond the diversion dam, about a quarter mile of river put unlimited flows in my canal that the canal couldn’t handle,” Rettig said. Now, when the Musselshell crests and re-crests with flood water, Delphia Canal is inundated. The canal system is turning to the state for assistance, but the number of irrigation systems looking for help is sizable and funds are limited, said Mary Sexton, of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
Sexton said the state has had about 30 queries from different irrigation systems looking for help. She’s encouraging them to take small amounts of assistance now to help cover engineering work needed to craft a plan necessary to solicit federal assistance.
Below Fort Peck Dam, a different kind of flooding dilemma is playing out. Worried about record high water levels and snowpack yet to thaw, the Army Corps of Engineers is now discharging dam water at a rate near 60,000 cubic feet per second, the largest releases in the dam’s history. And the discharges continue to grow. Two weeks ago, engineers said the maximum release would be 50,000. Last week the amount was raised to 60,000.
There are acres of hay downriver from Fort Peck that have been submerged for so long Federal Farm Service Agent Mike Hagfeldt suspects a shortage of animal feed is coming later this year.
“The majority of our hay is on the river bottom and that’s dead,” Hagfeldt said. “Two-thirds of it has been under water for two months. We started flooding in April.”
Located in Glasgow, Hagfeldt’s Farm Service Agency office serves Valley County, a major spring wheat producer that stretches 70 miles from north to south. Weather there has not only been unusual, it’s been brutal. In May, parts of the county received 7 inches of rain. Normal rainfall for the month is 2 inches. And that record rain followed a freakish 9 feet of snow last winter. At an emergency board meeting earlier this spring it was estimated as many as 100,000 acres would go unplanted this year in Valley County, Hagfeldt said.
No crop in the ground
Statewide, the number of farmers seeking special assistance because extreme weather conditions prevented spring planting is expected to be considerable. As federal aid goes, prevented planting assistance is the emergency parachute of last resort for farmers and one rarely used on a wide scale in usually arid Montana. At the beginning of the month, the Federal Farm Service Agency extended the deadline to July 15 for applying for prevented planting assistance, which gives farmers a month or more to decide whether to pull the ripcord.
“The floods are getting the press. They’re kind of horrific and yes the river bottoms are affected. There’s obviously structure damage and water damage, but I think the big issue now is getting the crop in the ground,” said Did Deschamps, Montana Farm Service Agency acting state director.
In areas like Dawson County, where Farm Service Agency workers can’t remember a prevented planting assistance request in the last 30 years, farmers are beginning to inquire about enrolling acres.
Leonard Schock, who raises wheat in north McCone County near Vida, is reluctantly submitting as many as 2,000 of his acres for prevented planting assistance. He’d hoped to get more wheat planted, but realized he wouldn’t after his farm equipment kept sinking in the muddy soup despite five rain-free days of sunshine.
“A lot of people think we get a good day and we get some planting done, but that’s not happening,” Schock said.
Last Monday, Schock spent nine hours dislodging a tractor that sank in mud past its axles while spraying fungicide. Neighbors with bigger pieces of equipment have paid as much as $8,000 to hire heavy equipment to reclaim farm machinery from the muck, Schock said. The cost of getting stuck is discouraging farmers from trying to plant.
The problem is, preventative planting assistance isn’t available for the second tier farm economy — the service businesses that depend on farm customers.
“We very often forget about the service industries: ag chemical companies, the custom applicators and even the custom combiners,” said Gary Brester, Montana State University economist. “I’m not saying it isn’t good for producers, but preventive planting has an impact, depending on how many people participate, a substantial impact.”
As they push the planting envelope, farmers like Gordon Stoner know not planting will harm their communities.
“Ag spends money. I’ve maintained that all along, calling on our delegation and D.C. and other members,” Stoner said. “They sometimes fuss about farm payments, but farmers put their money back.”
The 10-day forecast for Plentywood called for eight days of rain, Stoner said. His chances of turning a wheel were very slim.