Rebuild or not? Farmers in Otter Tail ask after tornadoby Ambar Espinoza, Minnesota Public Radio
Otter Tail County, Minn. — Don Goeden has seen dry summers and harsh winters. But he's never seen anything like he saw this past June when a tornado ravaged 36 miles of farmland.
The tornado, took down all of Goeden's farm buildings and his cattle feedlots. It also ripped off the roof and a section of his house.
"That didn't bother me until I opened the doors and saw my trees, my 100-year-old oak trees," he said. ""Many, many, many of them in my yard here completely flattened. And then I cried a little bit. Takes a long time to grow a tree."
Nearly three months after a wave of tornadoes crossed northwestern Minnesota, causing millions of dollars in damage, more than 100 farmers in rural Otter Tail County are still recovering. The devastation was bad enough that many faced the difficult decision of whether to rebuild.
Goeden has a medium-sized farming operation with about 1,000 acres of corn, wheat, and soybeans and 100 stock cows. He considered walking away from everything.
"It feels like you have your life pulled out of you, like somebody is reaching up on your chest cavity and pulling up the heart right out of you," he said. "We're tied to our land. We're tied to our animals. We're tied to our buildings. And it's not just losing buildings or animals. It's like we lose our life, our livelihood."
Goeden's family and friends convinced him to rebuild, but he'll need $200,0000 to do so. But like other farmers he was woefully under insured. His policy will only cover $22,000.
It could have been worse. Goeden's cattle were spared because they were out on pastures at different farms. But other farmers weren't so lucky.
A few miles away, the barn where Tom Trossen and his family kept 36 milk cows was completely destroyed.
"We got them all out alive, but some of them were hurt pretty bad," Trossen said of his cows.
Trossen immediately sold half of his 18 cows for slaughter -- for about half as much as they were worth. The tornado destroyed all of his farm buildings, cars and a boat. Tools and equipment were corroded by water. A lot of debris still litters his farmland. Trossen and his family are still trying to figure out how much it will cost to piece their lives back together again.
"It got so expensive that the real option was only to fix what we had," he said.
Trossen said insurance will cover repairs for the house, but the money is not enough to rebuild his farming operation. He's taking out loans. After running a costly dairy operation, he plans to venture into beef cattle instead.
Trossen and Goeden are not alone. Wayne Enger, executive director of the East Otter Tail County Farm Service Agency, estimates more than 100 farmers suffered property damage.
"I think when you put together the loss of property, the damage to property, including wood lots, crop damage, conservation type damage of windbreaks -- things of that sort -- we're probably closer to $60 to $70 million of total damage," he said.
Enger said the tornado traveled across 24,000 acres in at least eight townships in Otter Tail County: Bluffton, Compton, Deer Creek, Elmo, Homestead, Inman, Newton, and Parkers Prairie.
The farm service agency in Wadena is offering low-interest federal loans and grants for clean up and crop recovery. Enger said the devastation is so severe, some farmers are still deciding whether they'll rebuild.
But others are bouncing back. Jim Maloney, for example, quickly re-seeded 60 acres of soybeans he lost to the tornado.
Maloney, 67, has farmed for more than 40 years and has 400 acres of soy and corn. He's optimistic about his farm's recovery.
"We've had ideal weather for growing soybeans," he said. "Things don't look too bad as far as the crops."
But the emotional toll is just as devastating as the financial toll. Maloney's house - where he raised his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren -- is badly damaged. He has to demolish and rebuild.
"[I'm] pretty sentimental," Maloney said. "I bought this place when I was 24 years old, and struggled most of our lives... We're happy."
His insurance isn't enough to cover all damages either. His car, pickup, camper and boat also were damaged.
"We haven't got any tractors or combines or anything fixed for fall harvest yet," Maloney said. "So we've got quite a ways to go yet. And harvest is pretty darn close."
Things won't return to normal for farmers in Otter Tail County any time soon. Many will continue to clean up nails and debris in their fields for the next several years.
Local churches hope to hire a full time farm advocate for two years to help connect farmers with resources and offer moral support.
- All Things Considered, 09/09/2010, 5:24 p.m.