“We’ve had losses,” said farmer Nick Stortz of Canton, “but nothing to the magnitude of what’s happened in Nebraska and Iowa in the face of recent flooding.” With compassion for people and animals who are suffering, Nick and Jenny Stortz wanted to meet people face-to-face and show them that somebody cares, will show up with needed supplies, and go beyond a handshake to offer a hug.
“Farmers and military personnel are the backbone of this country,” Stortz said, “and national news is not telling us how urgent the needs are down there – people displaced from their homes, people without food and water, cattle being washed away – this is calving season and ranchers can’t find their cows – roads washed away so there’s no way to get back to their farms or their livestock, all the food for them destroyed… These people feed our country and they need our help… You go there, have a smile on your face and try to put a smile on someone else’s… Maybe for one second, you make their day a little brighter…” That’s what drew so many people to join the Stortzes. They were making an effort to shower pain with kindness.
The Stortzes had just planned to bring one load of hay but Stortz posted an ad on the Nebraska Disaster relief website saying they would haul down anything people wanted to donate. Within 24 hours, Heather Kleiboer called and said, “I see what you’re doing and I want to help. I want to get the kids involved (kids at Mabel-Canton schools where she’s worked for the past 15 years – all 258 of which, and all alumni, she considers hers). These kids come from farms. They will probably be farmers. It’s important that they pay it forward. And we want to know others will be there to help them if ever they’re in trouble.”
“I don’t know how she found that ad,” Stortz mused, “but somehow she did and because she reached out, donations started pouring in. I had the farm connections, my wife had all the social media connections, Kleiboer had the city connections. She did all the background work, coordinating, keeping spreadsheets, managing contacts, she got flyers out, she got the Mabel-Canton FFA involved.” These communities are not big or rich, but they came out in force to help. “It wasn’t just the three of us making this happen!”
“Heather suggested a plan for getting donations,” Storz said. “I really wanted to take donations and purchase supplies from our local businesses and I didn’t want anything to go to a distribution center. We set up three drop box locations – Village Farm and Home, Farmers Win Coop, and Preston Dairy & Farm – our supplies were purchased from them. We have the Nebraska Strong Benefit fund set up at Bank of the West in Mabel and First Southeast Bank in Canton. We got t-shirts made and sold them with all the proceeds going to purchase supplies. At first our plan was to drive down just once on April 6 but donations keep coming in.”
The group had $6,400 on Thursday. They did TV interviews and word spread; by Friday they had $15,400 and the fund was still growing. Money came from as far away as Worthington, Cannon Falls, Wisconsin Dells and Des Moines. “When this first started, it was just Jenny and me,” said Stortz. “It has grown so crazy and unbelievable!” Stortz is planning a second trip around April 20. “We’ve had so many people volunteer,” he said, “and even though it’s calving time and spring work needs to be done to prepare the fields, if there’s a need for me to go, no matter what, I will go.”
When they set off for Nebraska early on April 6, they had a whole convoy. There were five semi loads of hay (Stortz’s original load driven by Brian and Annie Erickson, three loads from Iowa driven by Mike Trogstad, Mike Whitesell, and Clark Ericksen; a load from Dave Mensink driven by Tyler Trende and Adam Reicks); a semi load of rock donated by Bruening Rock Products driven by Vincent Jones, a semi tanker truck of drinking water donated by Caledonia Haulers driven by Luke Nordsving, and Nick Stortz drove his semi with a 48-foot trailer donated by Bill Funk. It carried supplies purchased from the three local businesses. Stortz’s brother Tyler and his fiancée Aryn Jahnke hauled a 20-foot enclosed trailer with more supplies. Another pickup and trailer, donated and driven by Nate Bakke, hauled fencing supplies. Mike and Heather Kleiboer hauled a skid loader and a UTV to help unload supplies and get past some of the compromised roads. Jon and Sheila Nordsving and Carl and Donna Myhre drove their personal vehicles – easier to maneuver than semis. Each person donated time and resources as well as vehicles and fuel for a trip that would total 775 miles. “Before we left, people were handing me cash to help with fuel,” said Stortz. “I distributed maybe $100 max per driver and they didn’t even want to take that. I made them take it. Fuel is expensive.”
Nick has known some of these people for a long time. Others he just met, but now considers them friends. He’s also made lots of connections in Iowa and Nebraska. “My wife is constantly in touch with them on social media,” he adds. “When you go to help in person, meet people, hear their stories, and see what’s happening to them, it touches you deeply. In Nebraska we directed the semis to go out in different directions. The drivers all returned saying, ‘We’ve never seen anything like this. We’re so glad we came.’”
Nebraska has about 79,000 miles of river, more than any other state. Towns and farms have always been protected by dams and levees when rivers rise. Changing weather meant that rivers were already high this year but then came heavy rains and rapid snow melt. Levees covering thousands of miles were overwhelmed until they looked like “Swiss cheese” and fields looked like oceans. Levees and dams take time to fix, IF they’re fixable. Going forward, even a minor flooding event will have devastating consequences. When the dam near Spencer, Iowa, broke, a wall of water was released. Stortz heard the story of one farmer who got this phone call: “You have five minutes to get to high ground. The water is coming.” The family jumped into their tractors and drove cross county, knocking down fences on the way in hopes that their cattle would follow, find high ground, and escape.
A lot of cattle were lost. A big part of the clean up effort was removing carcasses from fences, trees, or buried mud. “We were helping one rancher whose farm had been devastated,” said Kleiboer. “We’d brought gravel for his driveway and while it was being dumped we noticed that tires had washed up alongside the drive. Jenny Stortz, was taking pictures and moved in closer. Then she came back and said, ‘Those aren’t tires… those are his calves.” No wonder this rancher wondered if he could go on.
“I have video that would blow your mind,” said Stortz. “I saw a corn field where the river had gone through. It left sand and debris five feet deep over at least 100 acres. I did not believe it could happen – no possible way. He will never be able to grow a crop on that field again – not even grass for his cattle to graze. I’m not sure how or if these farmers are going to recover. This farmer had around 200 cows, 400 calves, 1,000 head of feeder cattle – a very low estimate for loss is around $200,000. He’s found a few cows, he doesn’t know where the rest are – free ranging somewhere or dead. If he finds any, they’re so scared they run away and he can’t get them to food or water.”
This disaster is widespread – 41 counties out of 99 in Iowa, 65 out of 93 in Nebraska, parts of Kansas, Missouri, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. Still, some people are unaware of the devastation. Stortz shared the story of those who made a delivery to Fairfield, Iowa, and found that some people there had no idea how bad it was. “Two neighbors there ended up donating three semi loads of hay. It isn’t easy for a farmer to part with hay. Last year, a lot of the supply was ruined by rain. Good hay may not last and replacing what farmers give away will be expensive and difficult if they run out.”
“We couldn’t go there, but we saw pictures of Pacific Junction, Iowa. It was ugly,” said Stortz. “They had 8-10 feet of water standing for two weeks straight. As of April 6, it was still three feet deep. All those homes will have to be bulldozed. People are displaced, some went to Glenwood on higher ground. Some are with people they know, others are at an old school. People can come to the school for help. We gave them water, food and supplies.”
In Plattsmouth, Nebr., the river swelled more than 11 feet over flood stage. When Stortz arrived with his group, the water treatment facility had shut down and there was not enough water for people. This is where they parked the Caledonia Haulers’ tanker of drinking water and left it there to keep people going.
What does it all mean for farmers? “On the crop side,” says Stortz, “a lot of fields were under water and won’t get planted this year. In most cases, if the sun comes out and a crop isn’t planted, there’s no crop insurance. On the cattle side, there were herds that farmers have established generation after generation – the way they make their money is off calves and taking it all the way to finish for meat. Without a cow, you have no calf; no calf, no profit. On the grain side, farmers had a lot of corn in storage because of the fallout from the U.S.-China trade issues. Corn is about $3.40 a bushel… there you’re probably looking at storage bins from 50,000 to 100,000 bushel capacity. When flood waters came, corn swelled, burst the bins and grain rotted. There is no insurance on a crop in storage.” (U.S. Dept. of Ag says they cannot help with the loss of stored grain as there is no program covering catastrophic stored crop losses. (nbcnews.com, “Farmers Won’t be Compensated for Millions of Dollars”))
With damages from flooding in the Midwest estimated at minimum $3 billion, a billion of that is from agriculture and rests on the shoulders of farmers. Is it any wonder that people lined highway exits and children cheered and jumped up and down as the Stortz-Kleiboer convoy rolled into town. They brought what was needed: hay, water, fencing, food, supplies, help, along with compassion and kindness. Stortz plans to continue to help and drive supplies to flooded areas as long as people want to give.
More photos and stories are available on personal Facebook pages of Nick Stortz or Jenny Stortz.
Donations can be made to the Nebraska Strong Fund at Bank of the West in Mabel or First Southeast Bank in Canton. Or contact Nick Stortz, 507-273-3993, Jenny Stortz, 507-450-4571; or Heather Kleiboer, 507-456-6473.