Storms, flooding cause destruction on farms

Jan Shepel


CASHTON - The recent torrential rains that hit some regions of Wisconsin made life difficult for farmers. Some of the stories coming from farm country are dramatic. For Tucker Gretebeck, the monsoonal rain caused the catastrophic failure of a dam – ironically designed and built in the Eisenhower era to protect against flooding in his Cashton-area valley.

Tucker’ Gretebeck's Allis Chalmers tractor found about a mile down the valley is twisted among the debris like a toy.

The tsunami that resulted from the flash flood when the dam gave way took everything in its wake. Fortunately, the farmstead where Tucker and his wife Becky milk their herd of 50 grass-fed dairy cows and where the family live, is high on a ridge on a different part of the farm.

Tucker explains that when he was still a school teacher, growing tobacco was his way to raise a little cash and pave the way for his entry into full-time farming. When the tobacco buyout came through he looked for another way to use the venerable tobacco shed and the rest of the old farmstead that was down in the valley.

He came up with a fall economic engine that included wagon rides, a pumpkin patch and visits from school groups and folks from nursing homes. It was all set up at the old farmstead down in the valley. The old tobacco barn had been decorated with fanciful murals and a summer kitchen was added so local civic and youth groups could serve food to the crowds of people that arrived at the farm on fall weekends.

 “We had the whole community wrapped into it. People helped us out and we helped others out,” says Tucker. “This whole thing just kind of grew naturally over the years. We tried to add something new every year. This year we added a wood-fired pizza oven.”

 All of that is gone now, no thanks to the 11 inches of rain that overtopped the flood-control dam and sent a wall of water through the valley. “I have rocks bigger than a VW down there now -- and trees and sediment and sand. It took every building – everything.”

A venerable tobacco barn, seen here before the flood that destroyed it, was painted by a noted artist and was used for gatherings of  up to 4,000 people each fall who came for wagon rides, pumpkin harvest and cookouts. The summer kitchen and wood-fired pizza oven were lost in the flood along with tractors and wagons.

 Tractors used for wagon rides were carried three-quarters of a mile away and buried in sand. The wagon that was remodeled to give people rides was found ten feet up in a tree. Several cabins near the refurbished tobacco shed were wiped away.

The Gretebecks have used the valley for grazing for 14 years and Tucker says they could have handled flooding from the excessive rainfall, but when the dam broke it was just too much. Boards from their buildings have been found eight miles away where the raging waters carried them.

Reporters and neighbors who have come to see their washed-out valley can hardly believe their eyes. “We’re having an event here October 5-6-7 so people can see what it looks like. When I showed it to the guys from the Department of Natural Resources they just stared and took out their cameras to take pictures of it. Nobody can believe what it looks like,” Tucker said.

He’s happy that the small animals they usually have in the valley for visitors to enjoy – llamas, sheep, geese, chickens, ducks and goats – were not in the valley yet but were still safe on top of the ridge.

But eight dry cows that were in the pasture down below had the ride of their lives. It took a few days but they all re-appeared.

Poor dam maintenance

He blames the catastrophic dam failure on poor maintenance by officials who were supposed to be in charge of it.

“It was just a peaceful, beautiful place and it’s been destroyed,” he lamented. “People are encouraging me and assuming I’m going to rebuild what we’ve lost but I’ve still been trying to figure out how much we lost. I think it’s about $100,000 in just materials.

“I hope the dam doesn’t get rebuilt. I’d be perfectly happy if it wasn’t there,” he added. “This was worse than a tornado. It was a horrible feeling when I drove the Gator down to see what it looked like.”

The earthen dam once 50 feet tall has a channel ripped through it after flood waters breached the dam, sending a wall of water down the valley, washing away everything in its path.

 Al Hass, a regional pool manager for Organic Valley, said many of the organic farmers he works with had to move their cattle off pastures or to different ones because the flooding and the debris it carried had destroyed their fences.

One of his farmers had sand, sediment and water running through her dairy barn three and four feet high and had to move her 28 milking cows to another organic farm to be milked and cared for. Luckily, she has a friend in Minnesota with enough feed and room to take her cows, said Hass, and that milk is still coming to Organic Valley.

Aftermath of flooding

But the farmer also had to move all her equipment from her farm and vacate her house because all of that was flooded as well.

Hass, who is also a dairy farmer and one of the original seven farms that started the cooperative, said he has never seen anything like this. “The local infrastructure is severely impacted and a number of Organic Valley producers have lost their crops.

“If you have flooded corn fields and then you end up with mycotoxins, that throws a whole new problem your way,” he added.

The coulee region of the state is home to many of the state’s organic farmers, both those who dairy farm and those who grow produce. That region is the home of the CROPP Cooperative and Organic Valley. Hans Eisenbeis, director of media relations for the co-ops said the original building where the co-op began was underwater when flooding hit La Farge.

“That building had been turned into a retail store when we built a new headquarters some years ago and it was really hard hit. Our buildings in Cashton are on a ridge so they were okay but we had to close our headquarters building because we had no power,” he said.

 A lot of the company’s employees in the Viola and La Farge areas had significant flooding in their homes and many couldn’t make it to work because roads were impassable or bridges were out.

Found miles away

Peter Kondrup, general manager of Westby Cooperative Creamery, said there were a couple of farms that milk haulers couldn’t get to for a day or two. “This happened mostly if the farms were in valleys where there was a lot of damage to roads and bridges.”

Some of the farms supplying the co-op had groups of heifers washed away in the flooding – found later miles away -- and he is concerned that many of the farms may have lost a lot of their crops. “That’s going to be the biggest factor for many of our farmers is how much of their crop was damaged,” Kondrup said.

The Westby Creamery has about 160 milk producers who farm with organic practices and 46 conventional dairy farms among their members. The loss of crops from certified organic acres for those farmers is something that concerns him but the extent of those losses may not be known yet on all of those farms.

When milk production and hauling were disrupted during and after the storms, it affected the operation of Westby’s processing facility. There were problems on many of their member farms but also at the plant because people couldn’t get to work. Westby specializes in cultured products like cottage cheese and sour cream and sells products in both organic and non-organic markets.

With about 73 percent of the milk coming into his plant as organic, Kondrup sees firsthand the condition of the market for organic milk. The co-op had instituted a quota system for their organic producers but that was suspended as of September 1. “That wasn’t due to the weather,” he said. “We are starting to see some balancing of the market.”

 As Westby worked with its organic producers over the last months on milk reductions to fit the market, farmers responded by cutting back on cow numbers or feeding them differently or managing their production in other ways, he added. Some farmers got out of the business.

“This is a tricky time of the year for milk supply. We’ll know more in the next month.” In the future, Kondrup says he sees a way forward where a co-op like his tells the story of its farmers, knowing that increasingly “people really want that story.”

Cashton farmer Tucker Gretebeck survey's the damage to his farmland following the breach of an earthen dam.

Terry Hanson, general manager of Scenic Central Milk Producers Cooperative, said some of the farms in his procurement area had issues related to the flooding but nearly all of them had their milk picked up. “We had 900 pounds of milk from a conventional (not organic) farm that had to get dumped. It was hard on everybody,” he said. “Milk haulers went out of their way to make sure milk was picked up.”

Hanson said the organic milk market has tightened up, but doesn’t believe it’s because of the recent storms and loss of grazing capacity on organic dairy farms. Many of his co-op’s organic producers – they have 27 in Minnesota and Wisconsin – have their milk going into conventional markets because of a continuing lack of demand for organic milk.

Some buyers came to him recently looking for spot loads of organic milk. But even they wouldn’t offer any long-term commitment to continue to buy organic milk into the future. He feels for those organic producers who are forced to sell their milk at much lower conventional prices when they had gone into it expecting a premium. “I don’t think they can keep their organic certification going on conventional milk prices,” he said.