Flood victims find optimism sprouting

April 30, 1994|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Writer

WEVER, Iowa -- The farmers of Green Bay Bottom are racing against the rain.

In fields once swallowed by a river, tractors kick up dust, corn planters drop seeds no bigger than a thumbnail and the earth closes around them. The spring planting has begun early -- and in earnest.

From the cab of his tractor, Harold Bonar looks over his shoulder as the corn planter cuts 12 neat rows into ground littered with the ashen stubble of last summer's flood-ravaged soybeans.

Nearly all of the 81-acre field has been planted, but thunderstorms are brewing.

And in the remaining hours of blue sky, he must finish planting so the field can be sprayed with fertilizer and weed killer. Ever the optimist, the ruddy-faced farmer smiles and says over the creak-creak-creak of the planter: "Isn't this peaceful?"

The river that turned Harold Bonar's thousand acres into a murky sea last year churns muddily along, 2 1/2 miles away, hidden by a rebuilt levee and a ridge of leafy green cottonwoods, willows and maples.

The mighty Mississippi is a comfortable 4 feet below flood level.

But who knows what summer will bring?

"You never know it's a good year until after the crops are in the bin," says Eric Burch, the 33-year-old father of two who sells seed beans, oats, beet pulp, soy hulls and other farm products from the feed manufacturing company he operates with his wife, Kay.

From Minnesota to Missouri, the Great Flood of 1993 overwhelmed farmers and fields alike. The swollen rivers overran cities, submerged towns and decimated crops.

The flood hit Green Bay Bottom, as this 14,000 acres of prime southeast Iowa farmland is known, at mid-season, in the early morning hours of July 11 with a levee break.

Their crops ruined, farmers pumped out the Bottoms and cleared debris from their land -- a commercial fisherman took 40,000 pounds of fish from the drainage ditches in which they were trapped. They repaired their sodden homes and water-logged machinery, all the while knowing the vagaries of weather -- namely a wet winter -- could set them back further come spring.

Ideal planting weather

But neither the runoff from winter snow nor the expected ice jams on the river proved onerous. Spring arrived early and warm.

"Just storybook perfect for planting so far . . . " says Nick Huston, manager of the riverfront Colusa Elevator Company, from which Wever's flood-fighting efforts were launched.

"It had to be double perfect because we have to make up a crop, too," adds Charlie Miller, a lanky, 52-year-old Iowan who finished planting his 240 acres with corn and soybeans last week.

Last year's flooding cut the corn harvest in Lee County by half; the soybean harvest fared even worse, according to state figures. A less harsh winter and a record-breaking dry March warmed the soil enough to begin planting a week or two ahead of schedule. Across Iowa, anxious farmers took advantage of the good fortune.

Thirty-five percent of the corn in Lee County already has been planted, a vigorous start in a state that usually has about 6 percent of its crop in the ground by now.

"Just beautiful weather -- the kind of weather that just makes you feel good to get out and smell the fresh earth," says Mr. Bonar, who has planted 350 of his 1,100 acres.

Ruddy-faced and barrel-like in stature, Harold Bonar wears coveralls and "feed" caps -- he's got five hats on a rack in the downstairs bathroom -- in the fields. A bag of cold beef sandwiches carries him through a day of planting, a 12-hour run that he ends back at the farmhouse with a cold Heileman's Old Style Light beer.

A trustee of Moose Lodge 579 in nearby Burlington, the former Marine sports the tattoos popular in the corps: An eagle on his right forearm, "Mom and Dad" on his left. His hands, scarred and knobby, reveal his life's work. He has lived on a farm for nearly all of his 59 years.

A month ago, Harold's eldest son, Rick, died unexpectedly from complications associated with an intestinal ailment. He was 39. Like his two brothers, Rick lived within an easy walk of his parents' farm on Green Bay Road. Last year, father and oldest son put in the crop, one driving a tractor that pulls the corn planter, the other planting soybeans.

This spring, the father has been a lone figure in the dark fields.

"We just got him a new trailer house," says Mr. Bonar, as he drives past his son's home, "getting him set up, [then] this come along. It's been a hell of a year."

But despite his personal pain, Mr. Bonar has the clear-eyed outlook of an optimist.

"In another 30 days, this will all be green down here," says Mr. Bonar, who has restocked his hog operation since the floodwaters forced him to sell off his pigs last summer. "I look for a good year myself. You got to look ahead."

Hard to please

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