Farmers tormented by floods will not give up the land
In the late 1800s, the first members of the Drewes clan came to northwest Missouri and found a land that looked like their own back in Germany.
They put down seed on a plot of land 3.5 miles south of Craig in Holt County.
Nearly 140 years later, their descendants are struggling to keep the fruit of their hard work alive.
Almost all of the 3,000 acres of the Drewes farm is awash in the Missouri River, which crested Wednesday evening at more than 28 feet near Rulo Bridge. The flood stage for the area is 17 feet.
The flood was not the first, second or even fifth the Drewes brothers, Eddie and David, had seen in their lifetimes, all of which had been spent on the farm.
But it was the worst.
“The worst since Noah floated through here,” David, 51, said.
Like the water, the devastation from the flood has seeped into every part of their family’s life.
On the farm, the struggle to keep livestock, equipment, grain bins and the well house away from the water has filled the Drewes family’s days. Their kids, wives and mother Rita Drewes sleep away from their homes, which are located on the drowned farmstead.
Half the family stays in Mound City in the home of their sister, Sheri Sharp. Though her house is not flooded, Sharp is the chief financial officer of a nearby 40-employee ethanol plant surrounded by water, with no way for trucks or trains to come in or out with corn.
Even with the river crested and some of the water receded, their frantic efforts to preserve what they have left continue.
Against the tide
The days leading up to when the river crested were a blur, the brothers said.
During the 2011 flood, predictions by the National Atmospheric Oceanic Administration (NOAA) gave the Drewes family two weeks of lead time.
This year, predictions of major flooding came only a few days before, they said.
On March 15, a nearby farmer alerted Eddie, 52, and others through Snapchat that the water was getting high at a levee two miles south of the Drewes property. Eddie said he and two other farmers brought excavators and spent until midnight piling up dirt.
In the meantime, David and his two adult sons, Wyatt and Trevor, began the arduous process of moving their 150 head of cattle to higher ground. A tractor, with the tread needed to pull through the muddy ground, tugged each trailer of cows miles away and then returned for more.
The task took two days.
“It was our No. 1 priority,” David said.
Their second priority was to protect the grain bins full of thousands of bushels of corn and soybeans.
Like many farmers in the Midwest, Eddie said, they were waiting for better soybean prices. He couldn’t offload them because tariffs spurred by President Donald Trump’s trade policy led to a lack of Chinese buyers. (Eddie said he supports Trump’s trade agenda.)
Plus, a drought last year had yielded a historically bad crop, the brothers said.
“Some fields of corn produced about less than one-sixth of what it normally would do,” Eddie said. “That’s some of the worst corn we had.”
Though the farmers were federally subsidized in some ways and insured in others, payments on equipment and rent for farming land added up.
If the last year’s crop was “a hurt on top of a hurt,” as Eddie called it, the floods were positioned to bring another hurt. If soybeans get wet, not only do they spoil but they expand and the bins burst. Eddie set to building 3- to 4-foot levees around the bins.
Based on predictions, the brothers thought they would have more time to get their equipment out and build levees around the grain bins that remained on their property.
But the predictions kept changing.
“They said the river would crest, like, six times,” David said.
And that meant their calculations — how tall the levees would need to be, who could stay on the farm, how high up the equipment needed to be — kept changing.
On Saturday, March 16, David knew the water was at the farm before he could see it. He smelled the mix of sulfur and trash.
“I told my wife look outside and you’ll see the water,” David said. “She looked outside and it was everywhere.”
On Sunday, March 17, as the water inched upward, Eddie and his wife Theresa decided it was time for her to take their two children, Faith and Logan, out of the house, which was about a half-mile away from David’s.
“It’s like a slow-moving tsunami,’” Faith, 13, said, of the flood’s nature.
The only way out through the water was in a single-person sprayer. Theresa stuck to close to Eddie’s side in the cab, while Faith and Logan stood outside above the wheels while holding the back.
“It was fun!” Faith said, with face-splitting grin.
“They don’t normally get to do that,” Eddie later added.
Eddie couldn’t leave with them.
Once he hopped in the excavator to build the levees, only he knew where he dug, he said. The job was his.
The job extended into the night, when he would wake periodically to dip the excavator in the well house and try to keep the contaminated flood water out of the farm’s drinking water. (He was ultimately unsuccessful.)
Even though he said he wasn’t afraid to be alone at night on top of a tall tractor with swirling water lapping at feet, he had admitted the wrong move could mean disastrous consequences.
“If the (excavator) had tipped toward the cab, I would have been dead and drowned,” Eddie said.
Progress seemed to be coming along until Wednesday.
“After that, it was all rushing chaos,” Eddie said.
It’s hard for the Drewes to forget Wednesday. It was the day the Missouri River at Rulo Bridge was found to discharge more than 328,000 cubic feet per second.
“The day when the water rose a foot between noon and 6:30 p.m., 7 p.m. -- that’s the day I knew,” David said. “I knew it was over then.”
“We never dreamed (the water) would get this deep,” Eddie said.
Ridden with a case of the shingles, the family matriarch, Rita, 76, had planned to stay in her home, which never lost electricity and was fewer than 250 yards from Eddie’s. During the 2011 flood, she had spent from June to September in her daughter Sheri’s home.
By Wednesday afternoon, with the well house breached and no drinking water, she changed her mind.
David, who had earlier in the day waded through chest-deep water to move equipment, fetched the Missouri Water Patrol.
Rita sat in the patrol’s boat with her tan Bichon Poodle mix, Annie, in her lap and garbage bag of clothes at her side.
“This makes me sick,” she thought.
It took hours to navigate through the detritus of cornstalks and sandbags to reach dry ground at the Craig exit of Interstate-29.
“(The news) said they rescued up ‘an elderly woman and a dog!’” Rita later said, sitting in Sheri’s basement. “Elderly! That doesn’t make me sound too good.”
Back on the farm, Eddie continued to circle the levees, building them higher and higher.
It was Logan’s 10th birthday Wednesday. He, his mother and his sister went to St. Joseph to celebrate with Chinese food.
“That’s not something I wanted to miss,” Eddie said, his voice strained. “But (Logan) saw the water, so he understands. He knows.”
The water has begun to inch down, though it hasn’t left. The Drewes still use a Jon boat to get near the property.
On Friday, Eddie was able to see his family and take a shower for the first time in five days, at Sheri’s house in Mound City.
Expecting more floods and extended family stays, Sheri built on to the house after the 2011 flood. Much of the Drewes clan, many of whom were staying the house, gathered for a meal of grilled meat and macaroni and cheese.
Unlike the expensive farm equipment and two airplanes that have sustained damage, the Drewes have left behind several things that can’t be replaced. The brothers collected antique tractors, including the the first one their grandfather bought in 1936 and their father purchased in 1954.
Rita’s sewing room full of fabric is mostly likely covered in mold, she said. Upon each marriage and college graduation, Rita makes and gifts quilts to each of her grandchildren. She left a quilt she was holding for her grandson behind, she said.
“We’re still alive so we are blessed, I guess,” Rita said, with tears in her eyes.
The real damage will only be apparent once the water lifts.
When the Missouri River surged through their fields in 2011, it left a two-acre long gash in the ground. It scattered the farm’s gravel roads. Oftentimes, sand bags leave behind their guts on the fields.
“Ever try to grow something on a beach? It’s like that,” Eddie said.
The farm has lost the money they put into the fertilizer that was on the ground when the flood came and the seed for a planting season that most likely will not happen, according to David.
“No one is going to invest until there’s containment on the Missouri River,” David said, adding that the breached levees needed to be fixed.
The Drewes are part of a contingent of Missouri River basin farmers who think the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is managing the river poorly. Eddie was one of the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit that sought damages from the corps after the 2011 flood.
Remaining vigilant about keeping the electricity on and the sump pumps going is the plan for the immediate future.
Though the floods can be maddening and are “happening way too often,” the family plans on rebuilding, David said.
“You get sad, pissed off, mad,” David said. “Then it’s, ‘Let’s try it again.”
“Feeding the world” is part of a calling, Eddie said. Faith, who plans on taking over Drewes Farms once she’s an adult, said farming is part of her blood.
And farming near Craig is part of their heritage, David said.
“I grew up on the farm,“ David said. “It’s in our soul. It’s what we are.”