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Flooded farmers: Losing cattle, crops _ and income _ to raging waters

April 15, 1997

ADA, Minn. (AP) _ For Kenny Visser, each day seems to bring new tragedy on his flooded farm: One more cow found frozen in ice-encrusted waters, one more heartbreak in life.

The water is receding on his land, but rather than comforting him, it only reveals a grimmer picture of his losses since a fierce rainstorm and spring blizzard entombed his soil and doomed dozens of his animals.

``This is a year by itself,″ Visser said wearily of the last 10 days on his western Minnesota farm. ``We’ve done a lot of crying. We prayed for a miracle and now we pray to God for understanding.″

Last week, he and his sons, wielding chainsaws and heavy rope, desperately fought to carve a route to free nine Angus cattle trapped in ice-covered floodwaters. Only two survived.

Visser’s plight symbolizes, at its most dramatic, the emotional and financial drain faced by flood-ravaged farmers along the Minnesota-North Dakota line. In this season of renewal, many are simply thinking survival.

``For some people, it has been absolutely, personally devastating,″ said Scott Stofferahn, executive director of the Farm Service Agency in North Dakota. ``For some folks, it will end their career as far as livestock goes.″

Both states endured severe winters with heavy snows that destroyed buildings, damaged machinery and killed livestock. Farm losses in Minnesota alone topped $100 million _ before this recent disaster.

Now, with this April blizzard, that figure could soar to $500 million, said Gene Hugoson, state agriculture commissioner.

``For sure, it’s the winter that won’t quit,″ he declared Tuesday. ``This thing is a long way from being over.″

Though it’s far too early to assess all the losses, the outlines are clear:

_ More than 3.7 million acres of cropland in Minnesota are under water _ far more than the amount submerged there during the Mississippi River flood of 1993, when the state’s agricultural losses totaled $1.5 billion.

_ Hundreds of thousands of gallons of milk have been dumped in Minnesota because roads were closed and trucks couldn’t reach farms. Many grain bins collapsed from heavy snows or are sitting in water.

_ Cattle and calf deaths in North Dakota are twice as high as normal because of the long stretch of bad weather. In Grant County, in the southwestern part of the state, livestock losses in the first weekend of April were double those for the entire winter.

``We haven’t dealt with something like this _ ever,″ said Larry Beard, of the North Dakota Agricultural Statistics Service.

The recent one-two weather punch _ rain and snow _ came at a particularly bad time: calving season, when the young animals are most vulnerable. After the storms, farmers tried to move livestock to higher, dry ground, but the blizzard hit so fast, cattle drowned, froze in the water or died of hypothermia.

The 1993 Mississippi flood hit when crops already were planted. This disaster struck earlier. Thousands of farmers will be delayed up to a month getting into the fields, and that generally translates into smaller yields.

Many experts, however, say there is still time for good wheat, sugar beet, potato, corn and soybean crops.

But with so much snow and ice still on the ground, even better weather can be bad news.

``We’re in a Catch-22 situation,″ said Stofferahn, of the North Dakota farm service. ``We don’t want to rebound too quickly or it will exacerbate our flooding. But if we don’t warm up very quickly, we’re going to have a very difficult time getting our crop in the ground.″

Farmer Doug Christensen takes it all stoically.

``It’s not the greatest way to start a year,″ he said from his western Minnesota home, where his nearly 2,000 acres are submerged in an icy lake that spans the flat horizon.

Though his house is protected by a dike, his power lines were downed, his roads were washed out, his equipment was submerged. He figures he won’t be planting for another month. But, he added, ``Eventually, it’ll dry up and it will be business as usual.″

Visser, 49, can’t think that far ahead. He still has cows and cattle unaccounted for; earlier this week, three more died. He also has lost more than 40 hogs.

``Right now, the only thing we’re thinking about is trying not to lose any more animals,″ he said. ``The emotional toll taken on us is far greater than the financial one. ... It’s just a feeling of hopelessness.″

He added: ``You don’t forget something like that. ... If we go on, we have to put this behind us. We either put it behind us or we quit. We don’t have a choice.″

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