IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Flooded out, farmers find work rebuilding the levees that failed them

“We keep tightening our belts, but we’re running out of holes,” one farmer said.
Image: A pickup truck near Bartlett, Iowa, remains submerged on August 14, 2019, by floodwaters from the Missouri River that overtook small towns and farmland in the Midwest more than five months ago.
A pickup truck near Bartlett, Iowa, remains submerged on August 14, 2019, by floodwaters from the Missouri River that overtook small towns and farmland in the Midwest more than five months ago.Ed Ou / NBC News

PERCIVAL, Iowa — Pat Sheldon got a little more than 70 acres of soybeans planted this season. His son put in around 250, but that’s just a small fraction of the 2,500 acres of corn and soybean his family normally plants every year.

Instead of the lush green of skinny cornstalks and leafy soybean bushes that Sheldon, 57, would expect to see right now, his farm this year is surrounded by tall yellow weeds and vast stretches of brown, muddy water.

Like many waterways in the Midwest, increased snowmelt and rain in March caused the Missouri River to overtop the levee systems that protected small towns and farmland nestled along its snake-like channel. Rain and floodwaters then returned in May. Five months later, much of that water remains, making the land unusable.

Five months after floodwaters caused Pat Sheldon's grain bin to burst, the soybeans he harvested last year continue to rot only 20 yards from his home near Percival, Iowa.Ed Ou / NBC News

It has left many farmers without a crop to harvest this fall and forced some, like Sheldon, to find another source of income while they wait for the floodwaters to recede from their cropland. Now, many have found that alternate work as subcontractors — using their own farm equipment to rebuild the very levees that failed them.

“We keep tightening our belts, but we’re running out of holes,” Sheldon said, sighing as he leaned against his dusty red truck. The vehicle was parked only a few hundred feet from his front door, next to a grain bin collapsed by the floodwaters.

Sheldon shrugged as a cluster of small frogs leapt among his rotting beans, seemingly impervious to the sharp stench of decay.

"We’re doing what we can for extra money," he said. "We’re running bulldozers on the levees projects for some income and some cash flow. We have two of our own family’s dozers put to work to get some money going. We’re doing what we can to survive."

An exit to the communities of McPaul and Thurman, Iowa, on August 14, 2019, remains closed more than five months after floodwaters overtook small towns and farmland along the Missouri River.Ed Ou / NBC News

A win-win

From 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. every night for weeks, Sheldon, who serves the president of his local levee district, drives his bulldozer out along the river to help repair the sand and clay levees that were breached by gushing waters months earlier.

He moonlights as a subcontractor for a local construction and trucking company, Hendrickson Enterprises — a Hamburg, Iowa, subcontractor that hired a group of farmers to work on a levee just south of the Missouri-Iowa border.

Jiachuan Wu

Like with dozens of farmers hired by construction companies to work on the levees along the Missouri River, he supplies expertise and expensive farm machinery in the effort to close the river protection system that failed them earlier this year.

And at the same time, they hope that the money they earn — around $50 an hour — will allow them to keep their farms going as they face a year without earnings.

“All these local farmers are friends, family and neighbors,” said Tuesday Wray, the assistant project manager for Hendrickson. "They lost all their farm ground and didn’t have anything — no income or nothing like that.”

Farmers pick up work on a levee breach on the Nishnabotna River, a tributary of the Missouri River, five months after floodwaters from the two waterways breached more than 50 levees and rendered their farmland unusable.John Makely / NBC News

It’s a win-win as repairing more than 50 levees that burst during the flooding will require more than $1 billion and years of work, according to Matt Krajewski, the chief of the Readiness Branch for the Army Corps of Engineers Omaha district.

Farmers are able to bring out their bulldozers, excavators, tractors and scrapers, operate them and make a decent wage, while the Army Corps of Engineers is able to find capable subcontractors in a labor pool that is particularly thin due to the extent of the damages caused by the flooding this year.

“There’s a finite amount of folks available to do this work, and then when you start looking at the broader picture, there’s work going on around the country,” Krajewski said. “Your best resources then are the people who live here and who have a vested interest in getting the work done correctly."

Jiachuan Wu

Just south of the Iowa border, only 35 miles from Sheldon’s farm, Hendrickson — which was subcontracted by construction company Weston Solutions — has as many as 10 farmers at any one time working to repair the two breaches in a 32-mile long levee known as L-550.

“We reached out to anyone who had interest,” said Wray, who came to work at Hendrickson after she lost her hair salon in the flooding. “What equipment do you have? What else do we need to procure? These Midwest farmers banded together and got things done.

Floodwaters that overtook communities and farmland in the Midwest linger five months after they first breached more than 50 levees along the Missouri River.Ed Ou / NBC News

An unprotected future

For farmers along the Missouri River, there is an existential need for paying work and for the levees to be repaired.

The farmers know that their future here is tied to a strong protection system. These levees may not be fully rebuilt for years, however. That could cost farmers millions of dollars in increased insurance premiums, as their insurance companies would see them as being more vulnerable to flooding.

Sheldon said the potential increase to his insurance rates — as much as $30 an acre — could cut into his razor thin margins by 20 to 25 percent. And he hasn't even planted a crop yet.

Few farmers in the area were able to take advantage of the Trump administration’s market facilitation program — which offered them $15 an acre to plant cover crops — because their land remained too wet to plant by the Aug. 1 deadline. They are also still waiting to get the money promised to them by Congress in the disaster aid package passed months ago.

Corn stalks near Percival, Iowa, remain submerged on August 14, 2019, by floodwaters from the Missouri River that overtook small towns and farmland in the Midwest.Ed Ou / NBC News

Farm families here stored last year's crops in grain bins, much of which has since been lost to flooding. With their inability to plant this year and the prospect of losing their 2020 crops, they are having tough conversations during a particularly difficult period for farmers across the country.

Farm bankruptcies grew 13 percent from the previous 12-month period, according to data released by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. With 535 bankruptcies during that year, it’s the highest level the FDIC has measured since 2012.

But few producers here are willing to admit defeat even as a growing number of challenges, and a long stretch of time, lie between them and their ability to plant.

"That’s the farmer in us," said Sheldon, whose wife only moved home this month after flooding drove her to stay with their son in Nebraska City, Nebraska. "We have to try."

Even still, the Missouri River remains in flood stage at the gauge in nearby Nebraska City. That leaves a strong, lingering fear that more flooding could be on its way.

Though the Army Corps of Engineers hopes to have all construction contracts assigned by January and all the breaches closed by March, they don’t anticipate being able to build the levees to the 100-year level of protection they had prior to 2019’s flooding — at least not initially.

“With that many breaches, one thing we’re doing to get them closed is that we’re typically not taking them up to the height of the levee prior to the flood,” Krajewski said a day after a packed meeting with local farmers spilled out into the hallway of a local Iowa Department of Transportation building. “We’re going to something less than that, either a 25 or 50 year, so we can get a closed system.”

But with 100-year level floods occurring in 1993, 2011 and again in 2019, farmers are wondering how long it will take to get back to the level of protection that failed them this past year.

Rotting soybeans spill out of a grain bin in Bartlett, Iowa, on August 14, 2019, five months after floodwaters first caused the metal structure to burst.Ed Ou / NBC News

That uncertainty haunts Brian Johnson, who wasn’t able to plant on any of his 1,400 acres this year because water still covers whole stretches of his land.

“My question is, OK, you get it to 25-year flood level,” Johnson said. “But when are you coming back to get it to 100-year?”

The Army Corps of Engineers has the near impossible task of coming up with the clear timeline that these farmers need. The Missouri River is only one of the many waterways that overtopped its banks and destroyed billions of dollars of infrastructure.

"We have to remember we’re working in a microcosm in the Omaha district on the Missouri River. Broader, it was flooding on the Mississippi River, Ohio River, Arkansas River and Tennessee," he said. "There was flooding all over the country at one point, so there’s a whole lot of work ahead."