Farmers sow devotion, reap deluge Mournful pride greets great flood THE GREAT FLOOD OF 1993

July 18, 1993|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,Staff Writer

FARMINGTON, Iowa -- Somehow Ken and Joann Crabill can look across the mud and water that used to be dry land around their farmhouse and still appreciate their memories of the moon on the Des Moines River. Even now they wouldn't trade away their life on the farm.

But with about 15 percent of his 500-acre corn and soybean crop underwater, and much of the rest of it yellowing from too much rain, there's no farm income in sight for Ken Crabill.

So the lanky, sun-browned farmer drove his muddy Ford pickup to the bank for a loan Wednesday. Bills are due on the seed he planted in June that probably won't produce a full crop.

Even if he and his wife could sleep a wink, they haven't. The alarm clock beside an air mattress in their otherwise empty farmhouse was set for hourly checks on the Des Moines water that crept up over the gravel river road and into their yard this week.

Snapshots of heartbreak like the Crabills' lie around every bend in the loamy Mississippi River basin, where the worst recorded floods in the region's history have overwhelmed 8 million acres of farmland in eight states and damaged up to 10 percent of Midwestern cropland.

There's disaster in the muggy summertime air -- but along the rural backwaters of the flooding, the urgent rush to evacuate, mend weak levees and sandbag homes is tempered by a stoicism that comes from living with the land.

There is a sense of perspective handed down through generations of Midwestern farmers who have plowed right on through drought, hail, frost, insects, disease, tornadoes and flood after flood to produce the world's most sophisticated and productive agricultural economy.

"In some ways it's easier for farmers to deal with natural disasters, because being a part of the natural environment, they've witnessed disasters . . . maybe not [one] of this magnitude, but it's part of the occupational choice," says Paul Lasley, Iowa State University farm extension sociologist.

Listen carefully to the Crabills -- and to many other farm families who seem to publicly shed fewer tears per capita in the face of nature's wrath than people elsewhere -- and you hear a sort of American Gothic tale in which quiet strength is cultivated through humility.

One piece of flood disaster lore already gaining popularity, even if it is largely apocryphal, is that Red Cross officials were surprised early on in their rural shelters that no one was showing up (actually, small numbers were).

The story symbolizes how the Midwest's cultural setting for disaster is different from, say, the California earthquake or the Florida hurricane, says Bill Heffernan, chairman of the rural sociology department at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Here in the Midwest, there are longtime, small-town family and community links, and the disaster has been selective. The large untouched community is a support network for those touched.

Risks and rewards

Standing in their empty kitchen -- all their belongings are up the road at Joann's mother's house -- the Crabills lay out the positives and negatives of their years on the farm dryly and unemotionally. The mix of good and bad years -- on balance -- seems to have come out favorably for the Crabills, who managed to send two daughters to college and have stayed ahead of their debt.

Tired from sleepless nights, Mr. Crabill, 53, and his wife, 51, speak somewhat wearily of their life until nudged to say what has kept them in farming, given all the financial hazards and the risk of flood.

Like an improvised rondo in flat Iowa accents, the response is quick and heartfelt, with both giving the impression they are unaccustomed to sharing such feelings with strangers:

He says: "It's nice being your own boss . . . "

She says: "You have to love to see things grow . . . "

He: " . . . or when you go out in the spring and find a newborn calf, it's a miracle."

She: " . . . or that first wagonload of grain in the fall, mmmm, it's wonderful, all that yellow gold going into a wagon -- it's a job well done, a sense of satisfaction when you get a crop all done."

He: "And you see the moon on the water and it's peaceful."

Just as quickly, though, they return to how difficult this flood may end up being for them.

Can't get ahead

Last year was the first since the 1988 drought, says Mrs. Crabill, that felt as if they were going to get ahead.

"Ahead" means having enough for the bills, enough to buy equipment that doesn't break down and a little left over to save.

"But, whammo," this year's flood came.

Though the Crabills' losses will not total as much as those of many bottom land farmers up and down the Mississippi River basin, their motivations and experiences are echoed throughout the region.

Land along rivers is perhaps the most productive land there is, explains Mr. Heffernan.

"It can easily double the profit per acre," farming rich bottom land, he says.

So, near rivers, the farming vs. flood "gamble," as so many here refer to it, becomes a risk worth taking.

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