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Published April 22, 2013, 09:13 AM

Preparing for the flood

Northern Red River Valley farmers expect to lose acres this year, and can only hope the water comes and goes quickly.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

HALLOCK, Minn. — Two weeks ago, Kelly Erickson and his son Scott wondered whether the Red River would flood in their area. Now they know it will.

“It gets tougher as the days tick by,” says Kelly Erickson, president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association and a member of the American Crystal Sugar Co. board of directors. “The real issue is how long does it stay up. We’d just as soon see the flood get here, and get out of here. But that’s not the way Mother Nature works. There are ice jams, other things that happen, which slows floodwater down.”

Red River flooding causes local problems in all areas where it occurs, but the practical problem is worst for areas north of Oslo, Minn., where there are fewer options in late planting.

The snow that uniformly covers virtually every field in the Ericksons’ area on April 16 offers the promise of a late, cold and wet planting season. Scott, 32, is the fifth generation to farm here, and lives on the farmstead, which is relatively high, but has been isolated by water in other high floods. The farm is about 2.5 miles east of the Red River near Hallock, Minn., the farthest northwest town in the state. If the river rises as predicted, the Red will spread out five miles around there.

Timing is everything

Three county ditches converge near the Erickson farmstead. The farm is often cut off all around by the floodwater, but they raised a road in 2010 that could preserve a north exit.

“We see the full effects of the flood up north here,” Kelly Erickson says. “No question about that.” He figures he’ll at least temporarily lose access to about half of his ground when the water rises. He thinks the water actually acts as a kind of insulator, slowing the thawing in the soil, making the ground cold, sour and soupy. If the flood happens the way it has in four of the past five years, Erickson expects to lose 1,500 to 1,600 acres of land. It might dry out, but the question is when.

“I’Il lose about half my ground (to water) when it gets to the depths they’re talking about,” Erickson says. “I’m really concerned about it.”

Erickson, who typically would like to be planting in late April, says he now expects to get into the field in the second or third week of May. He thinks it’s likely he won’t be able to plant corn like he did last year, with good results. He says he’d prefer not to use prevent-plant insurance.

On the office wall, the Ericksons prominently display an aerial photo of their farm on April 25, 1997, the year of the nationally watched Red River Valley flood that led to fires in downtown Grand Forks, N.D., and millions of dollars in damage across the city. The Army Corps of Engineers had recommended sandbagging the house. So the Ericksons emptied all of their grain bins, and moved equipment to the roads.

They hope local meltwater gets through before the main flow of the river comes into the picture.

Spring flooding comes on top of difficulties last fall, when Erickson’s area was hit with 8 inches of rain and early snow starting around Oct. 4. He says about 20 percent of his beets were left in the field — the first time in 40 years of farming he wasn’t able to finish. He figures the lost beets cost him tens ofthousands of dollars, but he says that was offset by some insurance coverage and a generally good year, overall.

Daytime temperatures in the 40s and 50s and not freezing at night may bode well for the flood. Maybe not, but the river is coming.

“It’s quite an impact,” Erickson says. “When you start seeding in June, you’ve lost potential for good crops that you would have had if you were able to seed in early May or April.”

The ‘F’ word

Agricultural specialists are focused on the effects of flooding, as are farmers sitting with each other in coffee shops and bars, betting on when they’ll get in the field, and referring to the flood as the “F” word.

Adnan Akyuz, North Dakota’s state climatologist based in the soils department at North Dakota State University in Fargo, says the latest news doesn’t look good. He says the last snow April 14 through 16 brought about 8.2 inches in Fargo, 1.24 inches with high water content. Fargo had had 62.1 inches of snow for the winter through midnight April 14, the 13th wettest winter in history, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which indicates the levels of moisture in the snowpack in the region. April had brought 1.55 inches of precipitation equivalent, already ahead of the 1.36-inch average in Fargo.

The NOAA doesn’t issue its peak stage projections until the water surface is thawed. The last monthly flood projection on the river was issued March 21 and the next is issued April 25. Since the latest crest in major spring flood stage years was April 17 in 1997, this year will be later than that.

“We’ll have major overland flooding, and we are concerned with the melt of the snow, the frozen ground and water waiting on top of the soil, waiting to infiltrate deeper into the soil,” Akyuz says. “During that time, farmers are going to experience muddy and wet soil.”

Dave Franzen, an NDSU Extension Service soil scientist, says the river affects farmers far from the main channel, where a “natural waffle effect” takes place. He says many rural landowners don’t clean culverts, so they become “nonculverts, after a while.”

The water and cold delays planting and creates hassles for cultivating a crop, but impassable roads and washouts cause more problems. More prevent-plant insurance situations will arise, as well as more changing crop rotations, Franzen says. The fertilizer season will be “compressed,” Franzen predicts, and dealers will be under pressure to get product in at the right time. If farmers need to plant, they should be prepared to put the fertilizer on top.

“Don’t wait for the fertilizer person,” Franzen says.

Dealing with delays

Farmers did a lot of fall field work last year, Franzen says, so flooding will cause more residue to move around with floodwater. Flooding also will move around crop pests, such as cyst nematodes for soybeans and weed seed, including those with resistance to Roundup and other herbicides.

“Even though people have done a pretty decent job of keeping this out of their fields, the floodwater comes, and floods [the seeds] in,” he says.

Franzen emphasizes that field tile drainage — often blamed by urban dwellers for flooding — doesn’t add significantly to spring flooding problems because the soil is frozen and nonporous.

Soils close to the river are often 50 to 60 percent clay, while soils farther from the river in towns such as Casselton, N.D., are 35 percent clay. “It doesn’t sound like a huge difference, but if you get more than a tenth of an inch an hour, it moves sideways,” and not into the soil, Franzen says.

If temperatures suddenly rise to the 70s, “frost or no frost, it’s going to go sideways” with overland flooding, he says. The one thing that seems true is that less impact is expected on farming the farther south you look.

Paul Houghlum’s farm 2.5 miles east of Perley, Minn., has been whacked about five of the past 10 years with water from the Wild Rice River and the Buffalo River at Georgetown, Minn. Still, whether he has a flood will depend on the timing of water coming from the east, from Minnesota towns such as Ada, Mahnomen, Ulen and Hitterdal.

“I would hope to think that it’s not going to be so bad,” Houghlum says on April 15. “I don’t think so. I guess you really don’t know because there’s so many variables.” Despite his chronic water problems, Houghlum says every year he’s been able to plant every acre, but a couple of times he’s had to cut corn acres.

“If the Red is high and we can’t get rid of the water, the water stays here forever,” Houghlum says, in an echo of Erickson up north. “It’s a wait and see thing,” he adds.

Farther south still, Tom Knudsen, vice president of agriculture for Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, N.D., says he’s expecting little impact from flooding. “We get it early and get it hard and then it’s gone,” Knudsen says. “I don’t think we deal with it as the same problem, like the people up north.”

And even farther south, into South Dakota, State Climatologist Dennis Todey at South Dakota State University in Brookings, says there may be a little overland flooding in Day, Marshall and Roberts counties in northeast South Dakota, but he doesn’t expect significant flooding otherwise.

“We have put over 20 inches of snow on the ground in some parts of western and southern South Dakota, but the soils they are sitting on are so dry that I don’t expect it to be a major issue — short-lived, minor flooding at best.”

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