Southeast Minnesota farms fortunate only structures were lost in December storm

A historic storm of straight-line winds ripped through the area on Dec. 15, destroying buildings that many farmers in Fillmore County rely on for winter, and snapping a dozen apple trees at a Rochester orchard.

Fred Kappauf, owner and operator of Sekapp Orchard in Rochester, Minnesota, points in the direction of where a tree broke off during a Dec. 15, 2021, storm and killed at 65-year-old Rochester man. Photo taken Dec. 17, 2021. Noah Fish / Agweek

Don Kullot, emergency management director for Fillmore County in southeast Minnesota, spent the morning of Dec. 17 assessing more wreckage from a historic storm in southern Minnesota two days earlier.

A meteorologist with the National Weather Service in La Crosse, Wisconsin, called the Dec. 15 storm a "historic event for the state of Minnesota." The Rochester International Airport recorded a wind speed of 78 mph.

Kullot was assessing more damage from the storm on Dec. 17 before he met with the National Weather Service to help determine if the weather was either straight-line winds at hurricane-force or a tornado. He said the identification won't affect his decision to make an emergency declaration for the county.

"Public infrastructure is typically what we talk about when we're trying to figure out whether or not we've got enough for a declaration," he said, compared to private property damage.

He was convinced it was an emergency after seeing preliminary numbers from public utility companies, which had the county at the $450,000 mark just to replace and dress all of the lost poles.


But Kullot said that most of the Dec. 15 storm damage in Fillmore County was to agricultural structures.

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A destroyed cattle shed that Fred Kappauf, owner of Sekapp Orchard, uses in the winter, was damaged in the Dec. 15, 2021, storm. Photo taken on Dec. 17, 2021. Noah Fish / Agweek

Some of the farm wreckage in the county consisted of hog confinement buildings and machine sheds with roofs blown off, and multiple dairies that lost temporary livestock buildings. Kullot said that "economically-built shelters" to put up livestock were like a "pop bottle blowing away" in the storm.

"It's definitely going to be challenging for these farmers, especially dealing with these lost confinement buildings as well as the buildings now gone to provide shelter to the dairy in winter months," said Kullot who comes from an ag background. "I know what's required to keep these animals safe and at a productive level, and it's going to be challenging for the ones that are affected."

For how serious the aftermath was, Kullot said the county is extremely lucky to have no reported injuries or lost farm animals from the storm.

"I haven't heard of any animal casualties or a single injury," he said. "Which is phenomenal."

The county had zero ambulance calls on the night of the storm, said Kullot, and he heard in Mower County and Dodge County it was the same case.

A life lost

In Olmsted County it was a much different story, as the heavy winds kept emergency responders busy throughout the night of Dec. 15. The Rochester Fire Department responded to 35 calls between 6 p.m. Wednesday and 2 a.m. Thursday, and Rochester police Capt. Casey Moilanen said officers responded to 50 incidents related to the storm.


A 65-year-old Rochester man was killed from the storm when a large tree broke off from its base and fell on him. Olmsted County Sheriff's Lt. Lee Rossman identified the man as Keith Alan Dickman.

Emergency responders were called about 8 p.m. on Dec. 15 to the 3500 block of Collegeview Road East, for a report of a man struck by a tree. Rossman said Dickman suffered a head injury.

The residents of the home were hosting a gathering on Wednesday evening, according to witnesses, when Dickman went outside for cigarette, standing next to his truck. When those inside the home realized he didn't come back to the party, a member of the group went outside to look for him. The man saw that a tree had fallen on Dickman near his pickup.

The group worked the tree off from Dickman and performed CPR until emergency responders arrived. Deputies, Rochester police and firefighters removed Dickman from under the tree and took him to Mayo Clinic Hospital-Saint Marys, where he died.

The site where Dickman was struck is right next to Sekapp Orchard, ran by the Kappauf family for close to 60 years. The orchard has more than 7,000 apple trees of more than 25 varieties. The orchard is now ran by Fred Kappauf and his three children.

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A car was crushed by broken tree branches in a Dec. 15, 2021, storm outside of Sekapp Orchard in Rochester, Minnesota. Photo taken on Dec. 17, 2021. Noah Fish / Agweek

Kappauf said the worst of the Dec. 15 storm probably lasted only about a minute. A little before 8 p.m., he said he was having supper and getting ready for bed when he heard the sirens — both a tornado warning and from emergency responders.

His neighbor called him shortly after to talk about the winds, then hung up after seeing an ambulance outside loading a body into the back. Kappauf said it was a 60- to 70-foot tree on his neighbor's property that broke off and landed on Dickman.


"That tree has been there for a hundred years," said Kappauf.

In perspective

Kappauf said the Dec. 15 storm destroyed a couple dozen apple trees at Sekapp Orchard, their entire outlining fence and a cattle shed that he uses in the winter. He said the lost trees snapped right off at the base.

If the storm hit the orchard during peak season, Kappauf said it would've been game over for business that year.

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A big decorative apple sits on the ground at Sekapp Orchard in Rochester, Minnesota, on Dec. 17, 2021. An historic storm went through the area two days prior. Noah Fish / Agweek

"Would've had $100,000 worth of apples on the ground if this came through in August," he said. "Or $200,000 worth, just depending on how many apples were out there — but they'd all be on the ground."

But seeing the situation next door, Kappauf said he felt lucky with the estimated $10,000 worth of damage he had on his orchard.

"We all got hit hard, I just suffered the less damage," he said. "I got some fence damage, and lost a building for the cows that I scabbed together years ago — but that man lost his life."

Post Bulletin reporter Emily Cutts contributed to this report.

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