COVER STORY: Water warriors: Experience helps this Minnesota farm family cope

EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. -- Farming for generations in the Red River Valley has taught the Krueger family how to cope with flooded fields and barn yards.

EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. -- Farming for generations in the Red River Valley has taught the Krueger family how to cope with flooded fields and barn yards.

"There are lots of things to know about how to keep the water back," says Leon, who has been farming near East Grand Forks, Minn., since the 1940s. "First thing is, keep it out. Don't let it in and pump it back out."

Leon has had to deal with several floods over the years, perhaps more than many in the valley. His family's farms lie in an east-west line on a downhill slope that starts some six miles to the east. From there to the Krueger farms, the land drops about 6 feet. About a mile to the south, the land also slants about 2 feet toward their farms.

"So we're kind of in a funnel here," he says.

On the river


The first Kruegers to farm the Red River Valley arrived in the early 1900s. Leon's father had come from Posen, Poland, and set up operations on Minnesota Point, a peninsula on the Red River in East Grand Forks proper. They raised seven children and farmed the point until the mid-1940s.

"Their big crop was onions," says Leon's son, Kevin. "They raised onions for years and years. Then they started on potatoes slowly, and in the 1950s, they put a warehouse up and stored their own potatoes."

When Leon reached adulthood, he began to spread out, buying another 800 acres, including the land east of East Grand Forks, which he purchased in the mid-1950s. There he and his brother, Don, raised potatoes until about 1970, when the brothers decided to farm on their own.

"Don continued raising potatoes for a few years, and Dad went into pinto beans. That was when he started raising edible beans," Kevin says.

Today, Leon is retired and Kevin is buying land, trying to increase the size of his own operations.

"We farm about 2,100 acres," Kevin says. "We raise four crops. It changes from year to year, but usually it's 500 acres per crop of sugar beets, pinto beans, soybeans and string beans."

1979 flood

The first flood Kevin recalls was the 1979 flood. He was a junior in high school when the water started working its way through the fields toward their home. The farmland in their area is divided every mile by raised roads, creating squared, framed-in sections.


"It was jumping one section, filling up a field, jumping a road and coming on," Kevin says. "It gives us an idea of what water is coming. We had a lot of water coming from the east."

They knew the water was coming and that it took a couple days to fill a section to the point of overflowing the road into the next section.

"We had five days or a week to know the water was coming. Every night and every day, you could see fields disappearing," he says.

Kevin had a friend that had access to sandbags and thus was able get a semi-load of them brought out to their place. Members of the church came out to help, and Kevin recalls helping with sandbagging and shoring up at several places in the area.

"It was definitely a community effort," he says.

With the house sandbagged, they got the sump pumps going and moved equipment to the high spots in the yard.

When the water rose over the last road before their place, they were able to make it through with a minimum of damage. The road to the west of the farm yard was somewhat lower in elevation, allowing quick drain-off.

"We had water lapping up against the grain bins, and we had water about 6 inches deep in the shop," he says. "But we never had any water in the basement."


The flood of 1979 lasted a week for the Kruegers, and many of their tractors and rolling stock would require work after a week in water.

"Every time we had a big flood, all of our wheel bearings were shot from sitting in the water for a week," Kevin says. "We had 30 pieces of machinery we had to go through and re-bearing. That gets to be expensive and time-consuming."

Their fields would take longer to get drained and longer yet to be dry enough to plant.

1997 flood

Eighteen years later, the Red River crested again, this time to a much greater extent, putting almost all of East Grand Forks and cross-river city, Grand Forks, N.D., under water. A total of eight blizzards had hit the area that winter.

"We had snow, major deep. We basically had a tunnel going in our driveway, to the top of the tractor tires going up to the house," Kevin says of his new home, built just over a mile east of the home he grew up in. He made sure his young family was on high ground.

"Water wasn't really that big of an issue that year because the house was high enough so the water flowed around," he says. "The horses lost pasture, but we never had any water in the house."

They did have water up to the shop again, and a grain bin full of edible beans got wet, causing it to blow out at the base.

"We just emptied it out after the water went down and had a guy come out," he says. "We basically picked it back up and set it back on the frame and re-attached it."

They lost a few thousand bushels of beans, he recalls, but they were insured.

And again, they did what they could to save the wheel bearings on the equipment.

"We had certain high spots in the yard, so we brought stuff up where it's only sitting in 4 inches of water, instead of 2 feet," Kevin says. "But there's some stuff you just couldn't get out of there, like the harrow. It has four wheels on the ground."

2009 preparations

After the water finally receded and their fields dried enough to plant, they turned their attention to building a ring dike. With government assistance, they built the dike around his father's house, the shop and the machinery.

"It went up as soon as it got dry," Leon says. "The government helped us. We paid for about 10 percent of it."

In addition, the Kruegers decided they needed a pump to move water off of flooded fields.

"When we were getting lots of water in 1998, we built a couple pumps to help in situations that, if the water gets too wild and we can't control it. Instead of getting your little 2-inch pump or your sump pump that you buy in town, we built a tractor pump," Kevin says.

A neighbor had a single unit with 16-inch discharge capacity. The Kruegers borrowed it one winter to make a copy of the design and then added modification of their own.

"We made a double-discharge pump," Kevin says. "We call it double-barreled."

They mounted them on a frame, which mounts up to the rear of the tractor. Driven by the 200-horsepower tractor's power take-off, the pump can move the water well, though Kevin says they are finding it difficult to calculate the exact flow rate.

"The guy who tried to calculate it with a 5-gallon bucket kept getting knocked over," he says.

Though the pumps come in handy when they're fighting water levels, Kevin says they built them more for during the growing season.

"When we get a big rain event, we can dump the pump in the northwest corner, which is low, and pump water over the bank," he says. "It's just an extra bonus for springtime if we need it."

Drying out

In 2009, they've got things well under control around their homes, though their fields are all under water. Their concern now is centered on getting that water off as soon as possible so they can get the fields dry and begin planting. Being a sugar beet grower, Kevin wants to get planted as soon as he can.

The key, Leon says, is to get the water in the ditches moving.

"If we can get our ditch going, that's our big concern," he says. "That's where the water goes out, and it's all froze up."

Most of the water movement is feeding into the fields, not out, so the ditches are "lazy," Kevin says. Without ditch drainage, the fields will be under water for a while longer. The Kruegers expect it will take two weeks or more to dry out enough for them to go to work.

"Sunshine makes a big difference, and wind," Leon says. "But if you go in when the ground is wet, you end up with a bunch of lumps, and that just doesn't work."

"If you mud it in, you fight it all year," Kevin says.

They usually have the ground ready by the latter part of April, but this year, with the water filling the fields and ditches, Leon and Kevin are expecting a late start.

"Now, I don't see us getting in the field until May," Kevin says. "I'm thinking May 10, before we can even get going."

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