When the snow melted in Benton County this spring, it revealed a mess — debris, sheet metal and tin from machine sheds and barns; fence posts; galvanized sheet metal from grain bins; and in many cases, pieces of blue steel siding from silos that previously dotted the countryside. Even after the six-plus months since the August derecho that ravaged Iowa, there was still a mess to be cleaned up.
“There’s still hours and hours’ worth of work to do yet. That’s the problem. And we haven’t even looked at it yet this spring,” says Scott Birker, one of the many farmers affected by the derecho in Benton County. “We’re one of the fortunate farms that have been hit twice by a major windstorm. We got hit in 2011, so we kind of knew what to do and how to do it.”
Scott's wife, Jenni, notes although there was more warning in 2020, the recent derecho was more widespread than the 2011 event.
“This time, we knew there was a bad storm coming. We were watching for tornado risk. I was in the office working on paperwork and Scott was baling hay,” Jenni says. “He called me and said, ‘I think you’d better open the shop for me so I can whip the baler right into storage.’ So I sent our daughter, Izzie, down to open the door. This was two, three minutes before it hit.”
Soon after, they and their daughters, Izzie and Katie, and son, Cole, went to the basement.
“When we were in the basement, I was texting back and forth with my sister, who lives just over the hill,” she adds. “Then all communication just quit. A cell tower went down. We couldn’t call each other, and we were on the same piece of property.”
The first thing they did after the storm was check on their cows and show heifers.
“You’re trying to put out the biggest fire,” Scott says. “We've got pasture that’s about 8 miles away and another one that’s about 14 miles away. So, getting to the cows was kind of a chore.”
The storm had destroyed their newly built calving barn — leaving a single wall standing — and had knocked down trees in both pastures.
Lending a helping hand
After realizing the full extent of the damage, Jenni asked for help through their Birker Cattle Co. Facebook page. The weekend after the derecho, neighbors, friends and family — along with 14 skid loaders and 25 chain saws — arrived to help clean up debris, pick up fallen limbs and trees, and help fix fence.
“That Saturday, a husband and wife that are also cattle people brought their Gator, and just focused on fence,” Scott says. “A lot of the barbed wires were stretched, so I bought some wire tighteners as a quick fix to keep cattle in. We got the trees off, and they spent all day fixing fence."
Still, there was, and remains, more work to be done.
“Once we got our fence cleaned up, Scott drove it every morning. I drove it every afternoon, and a friend from church drove it every night. The rest of the grazing season was spent riding fence every day because we had to,” Jenni says.
Like many affected by the storm, the Birkers dealt with a number of hurdles in rebuilding. For example, construction crews have been in high demand, and have limited availability. Meanwhile, costs for steel and lumber have increased with COVID-19 and the derecho.
“As soon as we had cell reception, we ordered trusses for a new calving barn, because we knew how bad it was,” Scott says. “Construction crews were already busy. Then we add all of this on top of it, and materials have been hard to get. Our new calving barn is built the same as the one that blew away. We knew what that cost when we built it, and it was 35% more, 18 months later."
Now, seven months later, the Birkers are nearly finished rebuilding their calving barn.
Of course, there are some things insurance doesn’t cover — like fence. And farmers affected by the derecho were in need of assistance to help cover these costs. The nonprofit Benton County Disaster Recovery Coalition stepped up to help those recovering from the disaster — often those who have already received assistance through insurance and Federal Emergency Management Agency and still need help getting back on their feet.
A couple months after the storm, the coalition reached out to the Birkers and helped cover the costs for rebuilding the calving barn and fence.
“The coalition has helped us with fencing items and our feed bunker. Both of those items are not considered structures and are uninsurable,” Jenni says. “Our livestock trailer flew up against the side of the feed bunker and busted the side out — and it was brand-new concrete."
Greg Walston, Iowa State University Extension program director in Benton County and a member of the coalition since 2010, notes the organization has so far committed $34,000 in funds to help aid the recovery of farmers affected by the derecho in the county. Funding was provided by multiple ag corporations. This includes anywhere from $25 to $2,500 for individual farmers.
“Basically, what we’re doing is we’re not giving a lot of money, but we’re trying to take some of the sting out of it and letting them know people care,” Walston says. “Our ag funds are depleting fast. If we could find some ways to add to our funds to help farmers, we would sure appreciate it.”
“One farmer came recently to drop off his application for funds. He's looking at $1 million of damage and has about $600,000 worth of insurance coverage,” Walston says. “He's in his early 50s, so he’s going to have to make some decisions on what his farming operation is going to look like going forward. Still, he was very optimistic.”
2nd derecho experience
Bonnie Sanders was talking to her sister on the phone when the storm hit.
“Earlier that day, looking at the radar, I thought it would not hit us. My sister called me and I said, ‘It’s getting kind of dark. I thought that storm was going to miss us. I think I better call you back.’ I shut some doors and went down to the basement,” Sanders says. “I was talking to her and I could hear things hitting the house. We have a wood stove in the basement, and it sounded like it would blow out of the wall. I shared that with her; then the cell towers went down and she had no way of knowing the rest of the story. She lives 90 miles away, and she finally found somebody that could come over to make sure everything was OK.”
The storm damaged a number of buildings, roofs and trees on her property south of Vinton. The damage included two machine sheds, a shop, several roofs, grain bins and other structures. While Sanders lived through the 2011 derecho, the 2020 event brought its own challenges.
“My husband, Dwight, was alive during the 2011 derecho. He passed away unexpectedly in 2018, prior to the 2020 derecho,” Sanders says. “I’ve been through it before, but he usually took the lead. When you’re just faced with this on your own, it’s kind of tough to know what to do and who to contact. Now, after some time and learning, I’m starting to find people to help me in the areas I need.
“You remind yourself that it’s only stuff, but there are a lot of memories for me personally that were wrapped up in those things,” she adds. “For years, we had a big Christmas lighting display, for example. The whole yard had these enormous evergreens that would be covered in Christmas lights, and they’re gone. It’s things like that, that are irreplaceable. I had a pumpkin farm for 40 years. The old building that I sold my pumpkins in is gone.”
However, Sanders didn't have the equipment needed to clean up. So, in December, she contacted the Benton County Disaster Recovery Coalition.
“At the end of March last year, I had an online farm equipment auction, and I sold basically everything. Typically, we could clean up ourselves, but I didn't have enough equipment. I had just one tractor. I was fortunate to find an excavator, but that brings an additional expense,” she says. “I discussed it with my banker in late 2020, and he brought to my attention that there’s money available to help. You always think, ‘Well, that's for somebody else, not me.’ I visited with Greg Walston. He filled me in, and I received some money to help with the excavation work this spring."
A changed landscape
When the storm hit Cary Bierschenk’s farm north of Newhall, Iowa, he was preparing to load cows for the Iowa State Holstein Show. Then, the sky turned black, and the wind picked up.
“We watched one chopper wagon get picked up, spun around and set back down. The other chopper wagon rolled two or three times,” Bierschenk says. “We stood in the barn and watched our two silos go down. When a silo hit the barn, all 120 of the cows came running out, then turned around, and went back in. Then it quit, just like that.”
“The next day, our neighbor brought all his cows here. We're still milking some of his cows because his barn was destroyed,” he adds. “One of my other friends had a 200-cow barn west of town, and it got flattened. He’s bringing his cows here, too.”
Bierschenk eventually got in touch with a construction crew from Conesville, Iowa, who spent about a month on his farm, cleaning up and rebuilding. Another crew helped in winter, and he notes they worked nonstop until the snow came in January, before starting work again in spring.
“I had $178,000 in damage just on buildings, along with some damaged machinery, but not much other than the chopper wagon and a couple augers,” he says.
Like the Birkers and Sanders, Bierschenk was able to utilize funds through the Benton County Disaster Recovery Coalition, which helped cover some of the cost of reconstruction.
Although he’s almost done rebuilding his freestall barn, two heifer sheds and his big, hip-roofed barn, he still has fence to repair at his pastures near Shellsburg, Iowa.
Like many farmers in the path of the storm, much of Bierschenk’s corn was flattened. However, he needed feed, so he chopped and harvested what he could — always in one direction, throughout the whole field. He also mowed and baled 100 acres of standing corn to use for bedding.
A lack of available feed combined with high feed costs are another hurdle.
"We're going to grow some wheat this year. We've grown wheat for feed before and it works pretty well. Hopefully, we can get through fall with what we've got on hand and won't have to buy corn for $5.50 a bushel. When I feed wheat to cows, I can gain 0.2% on protein and butterfat,” he says. “I’m also going to plant sorghum sudan or forage oats, and chop it. Without a lot of corn, I'm going to feed my cows oats and gluten pellets in the pasture, because I've got quite a bit of oats in the bin.
“It's all about surviving for the next three to four months. Getting things planted and getting hay harvested at the right time,” he says. “It’s going to take more than just a year to recover. That’s the problem. A matter of minutes changed the whole landscape of Benton County for years.”