U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spent nearly three hours at Glenwood Community High School Thursday afternoon discussing flooding along the Missouri River and its impact on agriculture.
Vilsack shared information with an audience of approximately 100 Iowa and Nebraska farmers, elected officials and representatives from various governmental agencies.
The former Iowa governor assured farmers that federal crop insurance would help cover crop losses resulting from this year’s flooding. Vilsack said the flooding is “unequivocally natural,” despite ongoing criticism of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Missouri River management practices. Vilsack said the flooding downstream is the result of snowpacked mountains and unusually heavy rainfall in Montana and the Dakotas.
Vilsack cautioned farmers about labeling the flood as a “man-made disaster,” noting insurance companies that have been hit with billions of dollars in disaster payouts in recent years could interpret the language as a reason to deny claims.
Vilsack also told farmers not to count on additional assistance from the federal government at a time when Congress is making deep spending cuts. Agriculture, Vilsack said, is taking a substantial hit from the congressional budget ax. He noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s budget was trimmed by 10 percent last year and now faces an additional 13 percent reduction in funding this year.
“For some reason, folks look at ag programs as some kind of cash cow,” Vilsack said.
Several farmers in attendance at Thursday’s meeting shared concerns with Vilsack.
David Sieck, whose family has farmed in western Mills County for generations, said river management decisions by the Corps of Engineers aren’t always made in the best interest of agriculture. Sieck said farmers are feeling the brunt of the impact of those decisions through lower yields, which eventually lead to lower crop insurance payments.
Sieck and other farmers in the audience said they’ve been voicing concerns for several years about the corps’ river management practices and the potential for a disaster like the one unfolding this year.
Fremont County farmer Dave Johnson called the situation “serious, serious stuff.”
“Do you understand how big this is to us?” Johnson asked. “We’ve got people who have lived on the (river) bottom for 75 years. They’ve been displaced and are going to need a new home. We’ll have no crop this fall and may not get a crop planted next year.”
Johnson explained crop insurance will pay him 75 percent of his average yield, but the average yield is low based on a formula that accounts for previous flooding.
“I’m sitting out there with the best crop I ever had,” Johnson told Vilsack. “Insurance is probably going to pay me for 130 bushels per acre. I’m going to lose 70 bushels per acre on corn, at $6 or $7 per bushel.”
Vilsack said it was evident from the farmers’ comments and questions that the Corps of Engineers needs to do a better job of explaining its priorities and decision-making process to property owners along both sides of the Missouri River.
“You’re owed an explanation of the current situation and you’re also owed an explanation about a shift in priorities and how and when those were made,” Vilsack said. “You folks have been saying for years that this was going to happen. Nobody listened to you because it didn’t happen.”
Vilsack said he wants farmers to have a stronger say in the Corps of Engineers’ decisions and he will share their concerns with corps officials. He promised to followup with those in attendance at Thursday’s meeting after he’s had an opportunity to explore their concerns.