Road closed signs and driving slower than you ever thought on a gravel road describes eastern Nebraska since the flooding of mid-March. But something as simple as a sign telling you that you can’t go forward wasn’t going to stop Nebraskans from working to get their lives back on track.
Before we get into what is described as the worst weather disaster in more than 50 years, let’s take a side road to how I got here. First, let me introduce myself: I’m Susan Littlefield, farm director at KRVN/The Rural Radio Network that is based out of Lexington, Neb. What makes our company unique is we are a cooperative fully owned by the farmers and ranchers we serve on the air. To be able to open the microphone and tell the story of agriculture is a privilege that I don’t take lightly.
I grew up around the Lindstrom, Minn., area and was very active in FFA. I attended UW-River Falls, where I met my husband, Michael. He and his family farmed northwest of Turtle Lake, Wis. My job in radio brought us to Nebraska, where we farm south of Surprise. Working for KRVN has allowed me the opportunity to work from home, where I do both radio and television.
Michael and I raise registered Columbia sheep and whatever 4-H projects our children are into. We have three kids — Bryan is in the U.S. Army, Morgan is a junior in high school and Paul is an eighth-grader. We keep busy with the farm and keeping up with the kids and their adventures.
Let’s get back on the gravel road that leads us to my community in Butler County. We had a blizzard the week before and rain leading up to March 13. Toss in there a quick warm-up before the rain and you’re asking for trouble, and trouble is what we got. We live across the road from the Big Blue River. On that Wednesday, as I finished up my day, my pager went off for a special assignment and to meet at the fire hall. I should mention that I am a volunteer firefighter and an EMT. (I got my start on the Apple River Fire Department in Range, Wis.). We spent a good couple of hours filling sandbags for our community and those who live close to the river.
When I came to town, the sun had come out and it warmed to 60. By the time I left 4½ hours later, it had cooled to the low-40s and was raining again; the road to the south was under river water. The Big Blue would continue to flow out of its banks for the next couple of days and take control once again of the corn and soybean fields, along with pastures and roadways. Creeks and rivers in our county pretty much shut down any rural movement. The county road department ran out of road closed signs, and all three schools in the county were closed. The water movement slowly ate away at the ground, washed out roads, left behind debris to clean up and made travel difficult.
For us, we are lucky as we are on higher ground. The creek that runs through our property came up quickly as it washed out part of the road to the west of us and came close to coming over the road just west of our driveway. The pasture and alfalfa field would see water flowing through it, but luckily, our livestock were at higher ground as we get ready for lambing. Others were not so lucky, and I’ll get to that in a bit.
As you head north of my community, there are two main rivers: the Platte and the Loup. They flow east and eventually find themselves joining the Missouri River. Just like to the south, the weather caused issues for those north, west and east of us. From ice building up on the Loup River to blizzards and a quick warm-up, it was a recipe for disaster.
March came in like a lion with two storm fronts that dropped 6-plus inches of snow in the eastern part of the state and from 8 to 12 inches in the western part of the state. Then, by the second week, we started to get a warm-up, which brought on rapid snow melt, with a deep frost still in the ground. Then, it started to rain for two days and the ice jams started backing up the Loup River once again just south of Columbus.
Cattle producers in the western part of the state were trying to dig cattle out of snowdrifts and account for animals, as cattlemen in the east watched floodwaters take away their livelihoods. For many, the watches and warnings came so fast, it was hard to get livestock moved to higher ground. One producer shared a video via Facebook that said it came down to saving their lives or the cattle, and the girls were going to have to fend for themselves. All the time she is talking, you can sense the tears that were rolling down her face. This story was played over and over again.
We also lost an amazing farmer, James Wilke, as he helped emergency personnel try to rescue a stranded motorist. James and his tractor were swept away when a bridge north of Columbus gave way.
Between the flooding and the blizzards, 74 cities and 65 counties had a state of emergency declared, and as of April 1, 16 of those counties have been declared disasters by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. I have been told that more counties could be added as more information becomes available.
Estimates continue to come in, and the talk is more than $1 billion in damage, and rising.
As homes, farms, buildings and livestock are examined, roads, bridges, levees and businesses are being assessed. Right now, it’s the hot-topic question of how much this is all going to cost. How do you put a dollar value on generations of genetics, equipment and the workings of your family operation? Townships are worried they won’t have the money in the budget to replace roads that are in disrepair if they don’t qualify for federal assistance. They know the roads have to be fixed to get the infrastructure and commerce going once again to help the communities get moving back in the right direction.
The Nebraska Farm Bureau spearheaded assistance through its website for both financial donations and as an exchange page where producers could meet to help out others in need. Steve Nelson is president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau: “We’ve been in communication with the Nebraska Department of Agriculture in regard to some preliminary estimates on losses. Those were in the range of $400-million-plus in the livestock sector and $440 million in the crop sector, from delayed or prevented planting. Neither of those estimates account for property losses, (i.e. barns, buildings, corrals, fences, irrigation systems, etc.), which will be extensive. Nor do they account for rebuilding infrastructure needed by agriculture (roads, bridges, etc.). The numbers above are very early estimates. I know the NDA is working to get a better handle on numbers, and some will be difficult until floodwaters recede.”
With the help of the National Guard, many cattle that would be going hungry are receiving hay via helicopter drop. According to Christine Kamm at the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, “donations of hay are coming into our state from 33-plus states.”
Out-of-state farmers and ranchers are dropping what is going on at their own operations to organize and deliver the needed hay, feed and fencing supplies. They arrive with tears and open arms to hug their fellow producers and to say, “It will be OK once again.” Conversations with producers have been tough as they tell their stories of cow/calf pairs lost, homes that have been in the family for generations were ruined and trying to decide how they will rebuild — and for some, if they will. Farmers and ranchers who lost livestock will work on trying to rebuild the genetics, but the impact will be felt when those lost calves should have been headed to area sale barns or feedlots and cows would be turned back out once again with the bulls.
We have watched the flooding in 2011 along the Missouri River and watched it come back again this year. Never did we think we in the middle part of Nebraska would we be dealing with such devastation. We have roads that are gone, and county and township governments are worried about how they are going to get these roads back in shape ahead of spring planting.
Speaking of, spring planting is going to be delayed as fields are cleaned up. Unfortunately, many of the planters won’t be in the dirt as the fields are covered with so much debris from sand and silt, along with the trash the waters left behind, that they will be spending the year working to get their fields back in shape to plant in 2020. Another hit to the pocketbook for those in the ag industry.
So, how can you help? The Nebraska Farm Bureau and the Nebraska Cattlemen have funds set up, along with the Nebraska Department of Agriculture and their Hay Hotline. All three of these are great resources for those who want to help as Nebraskans continue to rebuild and move forward.
As roads get fixed and bridges get rebuilt, a new normal will be setting in for those in agriculture. But it goes beyond our gravel roads; the effects of the March disasters will be felt all across our state. The businesses and the infrastructure will come back. It will take time, but the economic blow to our ag industry and the state will see effects for years to come.
In the end, we will continue to pull our lives together by our boot straps and hold on to being #NebraskaStrong.
EAU CLAIRE — A year ago, the Dairy Together Roadshow put a focus on the Canadian dairy supply management system as dairy farmers struggling with low milk prices and an oversupply of milk in the U.S. searched for a solution to the dairy industry’s problems.
A year later, and after the loss of another 691 dairy farms in Wisconsin alone, dairy farmers are still searching for a solution many fear won’t come soon enough.
Darin Von Ruden, Wisconsin Farmers Union president and an organic dairy farmer in Westby, said the hundreds of farmers who have attended Dairy Together events in 2018 and 2019 was evidence farmers are working for change in the industry.
“This is about agricultural organizations working together to find solutions to the dairy crisis,” Von Ruden said. “If we do nothing, the handwriting is on the wall for many of our nation’s dairy farmers.”
Speakers at the April 2 Dairy Together Roadshow, which drew about 100 attendees to Eau Claire, discussed three proposals for dairy reform. A version of the Dairy Price Stabilization Plan and Structured Dairy Pricing Program were offered for potential long-term fixes, and the Family Dairy Farm Relief Act was considered a more immediate, short-term fix.
“There’s more than one approach for reforming our dairy economy, each with its own pros and cons,” Von Ruden said.
“The plans differ in some of the details, but ... they give us control over production, they are strong enough to make a difference, they are national solutions and not regional or voluntary, they move the industry away from consolidation and help level the playing field so independent farmers can have a fighting chance.”
Wisconsin Farmers Union asked dairy economists Mark Stephenson from the University of Wisconsin and Chuck Nicholson from Cornell to conduct an analysis of dairy programs intended to reduce volatility in milk prices and farm income that were considered in the lead-up to the 2014 Farm Bill. WFU was hoping to find out what the dairy economy would have looked like had the Dairy Price Stabilization Plan been implemented with the 2014 Farm Bill.
“We need to give every farmer an opportunity to stay in business,” said Bobbi Wilson, WFU government relations associate. “In the lead up to the 2014 Farm Bill, there were a few proposals going on. What ended up winning the day was what became the (Dairy Margin Protection Program).
“We had some good proposals on the table not that long ago. We wanted to take a look at what those programs would look like under current market conditions.”
Through the Dairy Price Stabilization Plan, farmers who expand beyond an allowable rate of milk-production growth set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and based on market demand must pay a market access fee. That fee would then be distributed among all the farmers who chose not to expand beyond the allowable growth rate, according to Wilson.
“Essentially, farmers who chose to expand beyond what the market can absorb are paying everybody else for that additional share of the market so nobody is hurt by that expansion,” Wilson said.
Results of the analysis showed that had the Dairy Price Stabilization Plan been implemented, average milk prices would have increased, net farm operating income would have increased, market volatility would have been reduced, government expenditures would have been reduced and the rate of farm losses would have been reduced, Wilson said.
“The bottom line on what we found was generally pretty positive in terms of thinking of what these programs could do,” Nicholson said. “We saw reduced variation in prices and also some price enhancement, increased net farm operating incomes, reduction in the rate of farm exits across farms of all sizes, and a reduction in government expenditures on dairy programs.”
National Farmers Organization Director of Dairy Sales Dick Bylsma offered the Structured Dairy Pricing Program as a potential long-term fix. The Structured Dairy Pricing Program would establish a national Federal Milk Marketing Order with a $4 per hundredweight premium on the first million pounds of monthly milk production for all farms. Tier levels would be determined by the national average of herd sizes and applied to the Federal Order.
Bylsma said milk production has outpaced demand, all while the number of farms in the U.S. has declined by 94 percent since the 1970s, a trend he said is expected to continue, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture projecting fewer than 18,000 dairy farms remaining in the U.S. in 2036.
“In addition to my economic concerns, in addition to NFO’s concern about economics on a dairy farm, there’s one other very important point that we as Americans better stop to think about,” Bylsma said, “the biosecurity issue of having all of our dairy cows congregated on just a few farms. Congregating all of our cows onto just a few farms represents a real potential food-security problem.”
Bylsma said some of the advantages of the Structured Dairy Pricing Program include that it preserves farmer freedom by not limiting the number of cows that can be on a farm, doesn’t increase cost for consumers or taxpayers and reduces the cost of production difference between small and large farms.
“Based on current milk prices in America, a smaller family farm is paying for the privilege to milk cows,” Bylsma said. “The trend of smaller farms going out of business and mega-farms increasing will not change unless we change something.”
From 2000-2017, the U.S. lost 42 percent of farms with 100-199 dairy cows, 60 percent with 50-99 cows and 75 percent with fewer than 50 cows in their milking herds. Meanwhile, since 2012, the number of farms with 2,000 cows or more has grown by nearly 20 percent, according to Dr. Pete Vitaliano, National Milk Producer Federation economist.
“We have more than a price problem, but also we have a structure problem,” said Richard Levins, professor emeritus of applied economics at the University of Minnesota. “The mix of farmers out there is changing so dramatically now that pretty soon there won’t be room for (small farms) because (large farms) will have all the space.”
In February, the NFO proposed the Family Dairy Farm Relief Act, which they called “a short-term bridge program as the industry moves to a more market-centered solution not requiring federal funds.” The goal of the Family Dairy Farm Relief Act is to bridge the $4.21 per hundredweight difference in operating costs between the smallest of family-size farms and larger operations.
For farms with a 50-99 head milking herd, the cost of production disparity is $3.18 per hundredweight, and the disparity decreases as the size of the herd increases, according to the NFO. Under the Family Dairy Farm Relief Act, smaller farms would receive higher payments per hundredweight, but those operations have less milk to compensate for price-wise.
The program is based on a similar program started by the state of Maine in 2004 that a 2010 study by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and a 2018 academic study found effective.
The program would be voluntary and would draw from U.S. Department of Agriculture funds, according to the NFO. “America’s dairy farmers strongly prefer market solutions, but in times of crisis must also recognize the importance of short-term federal intervention,” the group said.
“This is a short-term program and not the first choice anyone would make,” Levins said.
The Dairy Together Roadshow is set for stops April 16 in Greenwald, Minn.; April 29 in Modesto, Calif.; and May 2 in Clovis, N.M.
For more information about the proposals, visit www.dairytogether.com.
John Harrison’s job isn’t what you’d call typical.
One minute, he’s ducking into a barrel, holding on for dear life as an angry bull lowers its head, charging full speed in his direction.
The next minute, he’s smiling and waving to adoring fans while wearing a long, green dress and sporting a curly blond wig beneath a ridiculously large cowboy hat.
That’s life as a rodeo clown.
Harrison, 40, of Soper, Okla., is in his 18th year traversing the country in that role. This season he’s covering 17 states from January to October.
Next on his schedule he’ll be making his fifth appearance at the Midwest Horse Fair, set for April 12-14 at Alliant Energy Center in Madison. Harrison will be part of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Rodeo, which performs opening night.
“I’ll go to Las Vegas for the rodeo and do interviews out there, and they’ll ask me what’s my favorite place to rodeo,” Harrison said. “Everybody is expecting a big one, like Reno or Houston or something like that. And those are nice.
“But I tell them Minnesota and Wisconsin are truly my favorite places to rodeo. I’m being honest here too. I tell everybody about Madison, Wisconsin. I love that place. People come to have fun there, and that makes it great for me.”
In turn, Harrison strives to make it great for fans, as evidenced by multiple PRCA Comedy Act of the Year honors. His comedy trick riding act is a favorite for both Harrison and fans.
“I’ve got a horse named Gus and he’s 23 years old, and he’s got lots of personality,” Harrison said. “It’s one of those acts I know when the crowd is kind of tough, I can do that act and they’ll enjoy it.”
He said changes in society over the past 15 to 20 years have made him more aware of what types of comedy may be deemed acceptable.
“Everybody is kind of in the ‘don’t offend me’ mode,” he said. “You have to be careful as a comedian not to make somebody mad, because most comedy usually is at someone’s expense.”
Harrison gauges the success of his performances on crowd participation and appeal.
“My basic rule is if I’m having fun, they’re having fun,” he said. “We all have our problems in life, whether it’s financial or a relationship or work or whatever.
“But when someone comes to a rodeo and they can get away from life for a little while and have fun, and they laugh in those stands, that’s great. When I leave a rodeo and I feel the crowd was energetic and fun and had a good time, that was a success.”
Having fun is only part of Harrison’s job. He also helps protect bull riders from serious injury by redirecting the attention of the powerful animals in the arena. Harrison takes that aspect of the job seriously because of his desire to help fellow rodeo professionals, the potential danger and his family roots in the sport.
His late grandfather, rodeo legend Freckles Brown, was a world champion bull rider immortalized in country western songs by conquering the “unrideable” bull Tornado many years ago.
“Bulls are nothing to be taken lightly,” Harrison said. “I’ve got two herniated discs in my neck right now, because when you’re in that barrel and get hit it’s like being in a car wreck. You have to brace, and if you’re not braced well enough that’s what happens.
“I was braced, but the bull hit the barrel so hard that time it knocked me loose, then he hit it again. Kind of gave me whiplash. So my neck hasn’t been that good for the past couple of years. But I fight through it and keep going.”
Harrison stays down tucked in the barrel until he’s sure the bull is gone. Although there’s one inch of cushion in the barrel, he said, “I’m not going to say in any way that it’s comfortable in there.”
“The older you get, the harder things become,” he said. “Instead of doing a roundoff back handspring for an opening, now it’s just the roundoff — and that even hurts sometimes. I’ve had two knee surgeries and a shoulder surgery, so the more injuries you have the longer it takes to heal up.”
Harrison grew up interested in rodeos and horse riding. His first trick riding lesson came at about the age of 6. From there he added Roman riding and trick roping to his repertoire. He steadily progressed and received his PRCA card in 1999.
“I started to realize that every rodeo hires a clown, but not every rodeo hires an act,” he said. “So in order to stay busy and stay in the business, I figured out pretty quick that if I was going to make a living I’d have to start doing some comedy. So just a couple years into my having my PRCA card I went the rodeo clown route, and I’ve been doing this and barrelman since then.”
Harrison married his wife, Carla, in 2006. They have three children: daughters Addison and Charlee, and a son, Cazwell. Another daughter, Billie, died in October 2014 at the age of 18 months due to a health condition.
The rodeo community rallied around the Harrison family after her death.
“Rodeo people are some of the very best people around,” Harrison said. “When we lost our daughter, the rodeo family came together like no other with support. They came from all over the United States and were there for us. We’ll always remember that.”
Harrison said it’s difficult being away from his family during shows, but he’s fortunate that much of the time his family is able to travel alongside him.
His young son has aspirations of becoming a professional baseball player when he gets older.
When asked what he’d say if the youngster instead wanted to be a rodeo clown, Harrison said, “I’ll tell him, ‘Go for it, buddy.’ The people that you meet, they’re unbelievable, they’re family.
“The rodeo is truly fun and being able to travel is great. It’s opened lots of doors, from getting a private tour of the White House at 2 o’clock in the morning to going to pretty much every national park out there. That end of it is something that money can’t buy — being able to spend time with family on the road and see things.
“I just think being a rodeo clown is a great way to make a living. I love it.”
Harrison doesn’t intend to put away the blond wig anytime soon.
“My wife and I joke that we just built a house and financed it for 30 years,” he said, adding with a chuckle, “so I don’t see an end in sight.”