VERDIGRE, Neb. — There’s Willard Ruzicka who lost his sixth-generation farm when the historic flood came through “like an ocean,” sending motorcycle-sized icebergs shooting at his trees, his farmhouse and his cow-calf herd.
There’s Clint Pischel, 23, who is having a child this summer but is concerned about his cattle being washed away instead of “enjoying the little things” with his pregnant wife.
There’s Verdigre, Neb., a township of roughly 600 people which prides itself as a farming community of ranchers, rolling mixed-grass prairie and chicken-fried steak drenched in gravy.
When high waters reached the town March 13, Michigan farmers knew something had to be done to help a community pummeled by record floods that turned farm fields into swamps. Experts are already forecasting the damage to top $1 billion. Other affected states include Iowa, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
For Michigan farmer Eddie Fahley, a member of the St. Clair County Farm Bureau, this was an opportunity for Ag Community Relief to provide supplies — hay, first aid kits and bagged grain — and support his Nebraskan peers.
Just days after reading the headlines and seeing the disaster unfold on social media, Fahley and three other volunteers of Ag Community Relief, a Michigan-based nonprofit that helps farmers overcome natural disasters, were headed for the scene.
“It’s devastating,” said Fahley, the group’s vice president. “I don’t even know where the people start. It’s a complete loss. They lost structure … (and) the environment has changed in such a short period of time.”
Fahley’s organization spent four days collecting donations. Once loaded up March 21, Fahley — and Austin Rossen, Chad Schultz and Jody Holbrook — drove 15 hours with two trailers full of supplies to Nebraska.
“We saw it unfold through social media and online a week to 10 days ago,” Fahley said. “We watched it come through and followed the need. After about three or four days, we realized the devastation was getting bad, so it was time for us to get on the road.”
One of the Nebraskan ranchers Fahley’s helping is Pischel, who runs a fifth-generation cattle operation on the north side of the Niobrara River, about 11 miles from Verdigre.
He runs about 400 head.
When the Spencer Dam failed near his home, Pischel was told to “evacuate now.”
“Me and my wife were there,” he said. “She started getting a little frantic about things with the dam being broke. They told us a wall of water is coming. I told them, ‘I got cows; I got calves that I know are on that river bottom,’ and they said I don’t have time. ‘You need to evacuate now and get to high ground.’ … We waited for (the wall), we waited for it, and finally at about 8:30 it came. When it came, the wall of ice came with it, and it was up to every bank you could find.”
“It all happened within 30 seconds,” he said.
“My best way to describe it is like an ocean. Ruzickas … would tell you the same thing. It was just like an ocean — non-stop waves, and it had to have been 30 feet deep of water there. … When things finally died down (and) we knew the water wasn’t going to get any higher, we finally made it down there and started looking.
“It was just — everything down there was gone,” Pischel added. “There was some calves lying on the bank that were either washed up and dead (or) some that you could tell weren’t going to make it long but were lying on the banks just huddled up.”
According to Pischel, all of the calf hutches were underwater, adding that he lost more than 45 calves — and some bulls — during the flooding.
“We knew it wasn’t good,” he said, “but we didn’t know it was that bad. … You kind of want to just lay your head down and give up.”
What Pischel lost “is gonna affect the bank,” but he said it’s nothing compared to what the Ruzickas went through — what they lost.
“They don’t have a house to go home to right now,” Pischel said. “So, it could be worse.”
It is worse for Ruzicka, whose 1906 home near the Niobrara River took on water from the flood.
“I’ve lost everything,” he said. “Most of the buildings are gone: all life, everything I’ve built — and I have built an awful lot of these buildings.”
On the bulls he lost, Ruzicka said, “We couldn’t get them out.”
“It was on top of us,” he said of the ice and water that came toward his farm. “There’s probably a 20-foot wall of ice that through here. That house, built in 1906, never ever had water in it.”
That was until the flood came through, washing out many of the Ruzickas’ belongings, crop and even some hopes of continuing farming.
According to corn and soybean grower Steve Nelson, president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, 70 of Nebraska’s 93 counties have been declared “disaster counties.”
He said early estimates include $400 to $450 million loss in the livestock sector, $400 to $500 million loss related to grain production, and $400 to $500 million loss in infrastructure.
“Practically every river and stream in the state has been affected with flooding, and in many cases, record levels of flood-stage numbers,” Nelson said. “We have not seen anything quite like this, especially affecting so much of the state at one time. But we’re resilient people. This is a major disaster; folks are going to need a lot of help, and we want to help them as much as we can.”
Ruzicka said the support he’s seen from family, Nebraskans and entities like the Nebraska Farm Bureau has been “overwhelming.” Organizations like Michigan’s Ag Community Relief will continue to help the state’s struggling farmers and ranchers through an online disaster relief needs list.
“If you’re out there listening, thank you,” Ruzicka said. “I would say probably 90 percent of the people that would ever live here, they’d probably walk away from this. They wouldn’t do anything with this; they wouldn’t try to recover from this because it’s a horrible mess.
“But you know what? I’m not leaving. I’m going to stay here. I can’t (leave) now because all of these people that have helped so far, (and) I’m not going to waste that time and energy they already sacrificed.
“If I walked away now that would be the wrong thing.”
Two weeks after Ag Community Relief’s initial trip, the same areas were hit again by another powerful winter storm. To answer the call this time, a group of West Michigan farmers and truckers put wheels in motion to create a relief trip of their own.
The group, Farm and Rancher Aid from West Michigan, departed Friday from Wayland Livestock Auction on April 19, 2019 with a combination of 16 semis and trunk and trailer rigs loaded with hay, fencing, feed and veterinary supplies to assist those in need in various Nebraskan communities, including Fremont, Schuyler and Columbus.
“It’s calving season most everywhere in the U.S. right now, and with the storms they’ve been getting in the heartland of the country, the cold and wet and possible lack of nutrition from a missing mother can have an effect on the health of newborns,” said Todd Brink, co-organizer of the relief effort. “The first six to eight weeks of a calf’s life are very critical. You have all the neo-natal problems that come along with being young. We delivered hay and vet supplies to a woman who just got to her cows this week, and it’s been since mid-March.
“So, they’ve been calving all along, and she’s not sure what they’ve been eating or how they’ve been surviving.”
The Michigan convoy arrived Friday night after a twelve-hour trek, and visited hog and cattle producers on Saturday, April 20th.
One of those hog producers lost 700 head. Another, a Texas Longhorn cattle producer who was also affected by the storms, suffered a heart attack.
Besides stops at livestock producers, the aid group made trips to local food pantries to drop off non-perishable food donations and Easter baskets.
“When we realized we’d be headed out on Good Friday and would be there through Easter Sunday, we floated the idea to kids in the area about making Easter baskets,” said Kerry Tucker, a co-organizer with the convoy. “What we thought would be maybe a couple of dozen (baskets) bloomed into over 200 baskets. They came from kids in the Hopkins FFA, many Allegan County 4H clubs, along with local schools, churches and families. And with the baskets, we’re took a large supply of decorated eggs that were used on Saturday in an Easter Egg Hunt.”
Brink added that the people who have “helped pulled this together have been nothing short of amazing.”
“It’s unreal the support we’ve received from the west side of the state,” he said. “And yes, there are other groups from different parts of Michigan, but we’re all working toward the same goal — to help farmers and ranchers that really need the help.”
Financial donations exceeded $20,000 for the second relief effort. And Farm Bureau Insurance of Michigan made generous contributions to both relief organizations to help defray travel costs.
Farm and Rancher Aid from West Michigan engaged in a similar effort in 2017 by traveling to Kansas and Oklahoma following wildfires in the region.
Watch the video from Ag Community Relief’s trip to Nebraska.
And watch the video from Farm and Rancher Aid from West Michigan’s departure, as well.