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Published March 17, 2010, 12:00 AM

Flooding hurts family farms

Wayne Brendemuhl thinks he and his brothers will be the last generation of his family to farm northeast of Kragnes, Minn.

Wayne Brendemuhl thinks he and his brothers will be the last generation of his family to farm northeast of Kragnes, Minn.

In the past 20 years, he says, the area has simply been too wet. Repeated overland flooding is washing away rich topsoils on what has long been regarded as prime farmland. And when the floodwaters surround the dike circling their farmyard, the Brendemuhls can be stranded for days at a time.

This year is no different. The 49-year-old farmer, his wife, Diane, and their three kids – ages 15, 16 and 19 – are “hunkered down” on the farm, waiting out the Buffalo River’s projected crest of 24.5 feet today at Dilworth.

Brendemuhl figures they’ll be stuck there until this weekend. That’s how long it will take the swollen river to recede and for flooded bridges and roads around them to open up.

In the meantime, he said, they are well-stocked with groceries and supplies. And if there’s an emergency, he can get through the water in his tractor.

“We’ve been through this rodeo a few times before,” Brendemuhl said.

The 49-year-old farmer joked that he’d like to be living atop a hilltop right now. “I wish my forefathers had picked a place higher up, east of here, to settle,” he said.

But when Brendemuhl’s grandfather emigrated from Germany, he moved close to the river like many settlers did. It provided a convenient water source for his livestock.

It also provided excellent farmland. Brendemuhl grew up on the family homestead on the west side of the river, and never wanted to be anything else but a farmer.

He eventually teamed up with his brothers, Curt and Dave, to form WCD Brendemuhl Farms. They primarily raise corn, wheat and soybeans.

But as early as 1993, weather conditions seemed to change. At that time, people said it was a “wet cycle” that would last three to five years.

But Brendemuhl said that cycle never really ended. The area had significant floods in 1997, 2003, 2006, 2009 and this year.

During 1997’s flood, Brendemuhl’s family had to be rescued by helicopter and their basement filled with water.

After that, he followed the lead of many of his neighbors and built a ring dike. He raised it in 2003.

But Brendemuhl, along with many area farmers, has learned he can’t build the dike any higher. A survey by the local Watershed District showed the soil can’t support a larger levee.

Brendemuhl also is concerned about what the seasonal floodwaters are doing to local farmland. The water carries away topsoil, washes out some areas completely and prevents spring planting in some fields by depositing logs and wet cornstalks.

He said some of the family’s best fields have seen a 30 percent reduction in yields because of flood-related erosion.

The wet conditions aren’t just affecting Brendemuhl’s livelihood, but his family’s quality of life as well.

“You don’t want to be in the position every year in which you don’t have any contact with the outside world for a week,” he said.

In fact, Brendemuhl said he could see his peers also becoming last-generation farmers if the region’s wet cycle doesn’t let up. “I could see this area becoming more of a green space next to the river,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525