When water from the Elkhorn River tore away a piece of U.S. Highway 30 near Arlington, just east of Fremont, it took a chunk of Julie Hindmarsh’s farmland with it.
Crews are still working on that stretch of road, which is still split by a lake-sized pool of flood water that’s settled into a deep and vast hole on Hindmarsh’s property — one that’s likely around 20 feet deep and more than twice as wide.
“We have owned this property, my family, for 100 years,” Hindmarsh said. “So all my life, I have seen floods go in, go out, we pump the basement and we went on. Nothing was damaged in any significance. But the destruction [this time] was so widespread.”
Hindmarsh had hoped that she could fund the repairs of the hole through the USDA Farm Service Agency’s Emergency Conservation Program (ECP), which covers up to 75 percent of repairs to farmland damaged by natural disasters. But after meeting with the agency, she found there would be a catch: the ECP would fund the repair of the hole, but would not pay for the dirt required to fill it, or transport the fill to the site. Hindmarsh says that would leave her responsible for a majority of the actual cost.
Across the state, ag producers and landowners are still tallying up damages and seeking assistance after March flooding cost upwards of a billion dollars in damages to the state’s ag sector, according to an estimate by the Nebraska Farm Bureau. Many, like Hindmarsh, are turning to government emergency assistance programs, like the ECP. But while those programs bring some relief, they also have limitations.
Hindmarsh has other damage on her Washington County property, just past the Dodge County line. Silt and sand covers large swathes of land that had been submerged. Other debris has been left behind. A 100-year-old family barn was damaged. Two houses that she was renting out were damaged with muck and water — one of those tenants has chosen to leave the property, taking a refund on his March rent and opting to start over elsewhere.
But Hindmarsh says that repairing the newly formed lake on her property could pose the biggest challenge of all.
Hindmarsh is still trying to finalize the estimates for the damages to her property before she officially puts in her ECP application next week. She’s met with the Washington County Farm Service Agency though and anticipates that she’ll find substantial relief in removing debris and clearing out sand and silt on her site.
But they won’t be paying for what Hindmarsh says could be the most expensive part of filling the gaping hole on her property: the actual dirt to fill it in and the transportation to bring it on site.
“Certainly we can’t farm this until it’s fixed, if we decide to fix it,” Hindmarsh said.
She’s exploring the possibility of using the ECP to move some of the sand that’s washed up onto her property to fill the hole, but she’s unsure if that will be enough, and even that wouldn’t include the topsoil necessary to make the land farmable.
The Farm Service Agency has received about 1,000 applications for ECP in Nebraska, according to agency Outreach Coordinator Bobbie Kriz-Wickham. These applications are in “various stages of approval.” The program cost-shares with farmers, paying 75 percent of all repair costs up to $500,000 to help remove debris, replace fencing and help with grading and leveling land altered by the floods.
“As with any federal government program, there are parameters to ECP and specific requirements for each practice approved,” Kriz-Wickham said in an email. “For example, ECP regulations allow for cost-share on materials needed for fence repair. For grading, shaping and leveling of land, the program will cost-share on equipment rental and labor associated with the grading, shaping and leveling, but it excludes the cost of fill dirt.”
For others, the ECP program also presents concerns about timing — to be eligible for the cost-share benefits, farmers can’t begin work on their properties until they’ve been accepted into the program, which could take weeks after they’ve applied. Kriz-Wickham noted there is a streamlined approval process for debris removal and fencing restoration work “under certain conditions.”
“Some folks already have been approved and are implementing these practices on their land,” she said.
But the potential of having to wait leaves some, like Dodge County farmer Gene Volnek, antsy, particularly with planting season coming up. While he’s planning to meet with the Farm Service Agency next week, he’s already started clearing out some fields, forfeiting any potential government assistance on whatever work he does.
“Timewise, most everybody’s going to want to try and get their crops planted the best they can,” he said.
Farmers are also wrestling with how to handle damages that are not covered by any government assistance.
When water entered a grain bin on Volnek’s farm, for instance, it caused soybeans to swell up.
“Because the beans got wet, they swelled up and they actually literally broke the grain bin, split it open at the seams where they’re bolted together,” Volnek said.
Volnek lost between 1,000 and 1,200 bushels of soybeans, which spilled out onto the ground, and also lost the grain bin. He had private insurance on the bin, but says that the insurance wouldn’t cover flood-related damages, and there’s no government program to help him with the lost bin. He might pursue a low-interest loan through the Farm Service Agency, but says he’s focused on other issues in the short term.
“We’ve got other problems, like cleaning up the fields and whatnot, from the flood damage,” Volnek said.
Meanwhile, over in West Point, farmer Dan Reimers is expecting to use ECP assistance to help repair damaged fencing and remove debris and silt from his property. But he’ll be on the hook for repairing the badly damaged private roads that help him get around his land.
The gravel that once lay over those roads has since been replaced by deep ravines, and some parts are still under water.
“I can see why they wouldn’t cover that,” Reimers said. “It’s not an income thing. They’re trying to help you out with getting able to get your income back.”
But, he added that he can’t put together a full assessment of the damage because some parts of his property remain difficult to access with no easily accessible roads.
More concerning to Reimers than the availability of federal assistance is whether or not farmers will see any sort of property tax relief at the state level — since property values are assessed based on the prior year, under current law, flood victims houses would be taxed off the assessed value of their homes prior to the flooding. For Reimers, that could mean paying property taxes on 100 percent of his land, even if he’s only expecting to farm about 70 to 75 percent of his land this year.
“You have to be able to pay your property taxes with farming,” he said.
The Nebraska Legislature is currently considering a bill that would provide some property tax relief to those affected by the flooding, which would allow county officials to adjust the assessed value of homes that were destroyed by natural disasters. That bill achieved first-round approval last week.