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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Farms, ranches feel storms' fury

Tornadoes and floods have ravaged large swaths of agricultural lands, jeopardizing livestock, crops and livelihoods.

BY PHYLLIS JACOBS GRIEKSPOOR
The Wichita Eagle

The worst of the tornadoes in central Kansas on May 4 and 5 wiped out Greensburg. But up to a half-dozen others tore out miles of fences, shredded shelter belt wind breaks, ripped down barns and sheds, and demolished farm homes.

Torrential rains then sent Cow Creek, Rattlesnake Creek and the Arkansas River spilling across fields of heading wheat and newly planted corn, grain sorghum and soybeans.

"The flooding cut a path about four or five miles wide in a diagonal across Rice County," said Doug Keesling, who farms and runs a seed business near Chase.

Flooding also hit Barton, Stafford, McPherson, Marion and Reno counties, and several other counties in the northeast.

Farmers are hampered in recovery efforts because federal disaster aid, if offered at all, will be years in coming, Keesling said.

The federal disaster declaration covers Kiowa, Pratt, Edwards and Stafford counties. Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Hays, said additional counties can be added to that list at the governor's request and with FEMA approval.

"That takes care of people's homes and things like power lines and phone lines," Moran said.

But losses of crops or livestock are not included.

Farmers will not get federal aid unless Congress passes an agricultural disaster aid package and appropriates the money for it.

The House passed a disaster aid package on Thursday night that in order to take effect still must be passed in the Senate and signed by President Bush. That legislation would provide help for farmers who sustained losses in 2005 and 2006.

But the time frame for that aid ended Feb. 28 and won't cover losses of wheat from the Easter weekend freeze or the more recent tornadoes and floods.

"The next step is to try to get that date extended to cover April and May," Moran said. "I remain optimistic that this will be passed and signed."

Easter freeze damage has been estimated at $500 million in Kansas alone.

"I figure that on my farm, the wheat losses amount to about 2 million loaves of bread," said David Cross, who lives about 20 miles from Greensburg in Lewis and is president of the Kansas Livestock Association.

Trouble comes in threes

Keesling said the worst-hit counties were the same as those hit by the Easter freeze. But the tornadoes and floods added a new dimension -- miles of debris.

"Some of it came with the winds and some of it with the water," he said. "But either way, farmers will be picking it up for years."

Todd Domer, a spokesman for the Kansas Livestock Association, said he drove K-156 from Great Bend to Clafin on Sunday.

"I saw miles and miles of shredded trees," he said. "I don't think there's an intact shelter belt left."

Cross said he was moving cattle into a freeze-damaged wheat field that he plans to graze out and noticed a piece of tarpaper in the middle of an adjacent field of corn.

"I can't even imagine trying to estimate the millions of dollars of farm damage," he said. "There's just such a massive amount of it from downed trees and power lines and phone lines to tipped over windmills, torn up buildings and homes and destroyed irrigation systems."

It will likely be several months before official estimates of the agricultural damage are made.

Replacing fences

Cross said KLA is continuing an effort initiated last week by the Livestock Marketing Association to help farmers and ranchers replace fences.

"They raised $15,000 and bought post and wire and took them out to Macksville to hand out to producers that needed them," he said. "That sounds like a lot of money, but it doesn't go that far. So we decided to raise some more money."

The Texas cattle feeders organization contributed $5,000 that was left from money raised for Hurricane Katrina victims, and KLA matched that, he said.

Beginning at 7:30 a.m. Friday, producers who need posts or wire can go to Pratt Livestock Auction where free materials will be handed out.

In addition, he said, there have been offers from fencing companies to help build for free, and a northwest Kansas FFA chapter will be arriving June 1 to help farmers rebuild fences.

On Monday, volunteers were beginning the job of trying to sort through more than 1,500 head of cattle that wandered from pastures and pens to try to match them up with their owners.

Cross said the aftermath of the storms will be felt for months, if not years.

"Pretty soon, the corn planted under those damaged center pivots is going to need water," he said. "What then? And the cows coming back to pastures will need the water that used to come from those windmills."

Reach P.J. Griekspoor at 316-268-6660 or pgriekspoor@wichitaeagle.com.

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