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Yellowstone flooding leaves uncertainty for farmers and ranchers in heavy-hit areas

By Eric Young

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    CARBON COUNTY, Montana (Billings Gazette) — The recent flooding along the Yellowstone River has left major questions for Montana’s largest industry.

Lost equipment and livestock on top of rising diesel, fertilizer and seed prices have put Carbon County farmers and ranchers in tougher-than-usual circumstances while looking at the months ahead.

Rancher Scott Fleur owns land next to the Orchard Canal headgate outside of Bridger. The headgate broke out last week during the flooding and caused extensive damage to his property and the canal.

The influx of water stopped just short of his shop and home, but agricultural infrastructure including a private bridge over the canal, silos, a truck and a sedan were lost due to damages. His alfalfa crops weren’t excessively damaged, but were exposed to silt and brush from the river, rendering them unable to harvest.

Fleur also raises chicken and cattle. Most of the chickens drowned in his coup when the water washed over while the lost bridge left him unable to reach his cattle.

“We were okay for the river flooding,” Fleur said. “We weren’t prepared for this.”

Concrete blocks brought in by helicopter were dropped to block the water flowing into the irrigation system and a makeshift irrigator was installed to help control the flow of water. Without such actions water would flow unregulated into the ditch threatening to spill over or destroy the canal’s integrity.

Fleur and others along the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River Valley agreed the main concern now is any further flooding before the headgate can be repaired. They fear any more damage ahead of a potential drought could compromise the water supply for 400 people and 11,000 acres in the valley.

“We’ve got to control that canal,” Fromberg Rancher Jay Stetson said. “If we don’t get that shored up, water will go through what’s already destroyed and destroy even more.”

Elsewhere across Carbon County, farmers and ranchers have reported lost corrals, feedlots and horse pens due to flooding along with some farms still partially submerged in water.

Looking ahead to crop and livestock recovery from the flood, there remain options available to those who may not have flood insurance.

The United States Department of Agriculture and Montana Farm Services Agency offer programs for both insured and non-insured farmers during disaster and emergency events that include the Non-Insured Crop Disaster Assistance Program, Livestock Indemnity Program, Emergency Loan Program and Emergency Conservation Program.

These can provide farmers and ranchers with financial relief from events like last week’s floods through indemnities for lost crops and equipment. Failed acres need to be reported to FSA within 15 days after the crop has failed but in some cases, people may not be able to assess this kind of damage for days after the flooding.

“In areas where the water moved slowly and simply covered the ground for a couple days you may not know whether that crop was destroyed until several days after the water is gone,” explained FSA State Executive Director Les Rispens. “Once it is apparent that the acres have failed due to inundation, you have 15 days to file a notice of loss with FSA.”

That means that those impacted by the flood should have time to file reports, but the real concern for area farmers is when exactly the aid will come.

Stetson said he and other farms and ranches in the area have already filed for available relief.

“You’re looking at six to twelve months before any funds will actually be seen,” he said. “And don’t even get me started with SBA (Small Business Administration) loans.”

Despite this, the harvest season doesn’t appear to be a total loss.

Carbon County MSU Extension Agent Nikki Bailey said crop damage has been a concern along the river, but not necessarily for the total yield percentage.

“It really just depends on what part of the county the crops were in,” she said “If you were in more of the impacted areas, you may have a lower yield but we’re still looking at about a 70-100% yield this year.”

In Stetson’s case, 75 acres of his crops were underwater at one point last week but he said recent rain showers washed off the silt from the river.

He admits recent events have added to other challenges, but added that there’s no reason to panic.

“There are folks that worry about things like commodity prices months in advance,” Stetson said. “But we really won’t know until they’re sold in the fall, so I don’t waste my time with that.”

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