MISSOURI VALLEY, Iowa – Mason Hansen guns his pickup and cranks the steering wheel to spin through sand up to 4 feet high, but this is no day at the beach.
Hansen once grew corn and soybeans in the sandy wasteland in western Iowa, and his frustration is clear. Despite months spent hauling away tons of sand dropped when the flooded Missouri River engulfed his farm last summer, parts of the property still look like a desert.
Hundreds of farmers are still struggling to remove sand and fill holes gouged by the Missouri River, which swelled with rain and snowmelt, overflowed its banks and damaged thousands of acres along its 2,341-mile route from Montana through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri. The worst damage and the largest sand deposits were in Iowa and Nebraska.
"We'll be working on this for years," Hansen said. "It'll never be right. Ever. People don't have any idea how big of a mess this is."
Hansen has spent the past nine months pushing sand off the land he has farmed since 2000 near Missouri Valley, about 25 miles north of Omaha, Neb. Throughout the mild winter, he worked with his neighbor and two farm employees to clear 140 acres, but about 160 acres are still buried under sand.
The work is tedious. As the men scrape away the sand with bulldozers, they must stop repeatedly to pull out equipment that has become stuck in the still soggy fields.
As they work, catfish swim in a 30-foot-deep hole scoured out by the river, and a faint sandy haze clouds the air. On days when the wind picks up, sandstorms sweep through the fields, blinding workers as they dig into the ground.
"We have the means and the ability to fix it," Hansen said. "... But when you have to come out here and deal with it all the time, it gets old."
Shawn Shouse, an Iowa State University engineer and agribusiness expert, said most farmers can repair their land, but for some it will take another year or two of work. The first chore is removing the sand.
"The sand doesn't hold nutrients and water the way soil does, so it's not suitable for growing crops," he said. "If the deposits are thin, they can stir them into the soil and probably get along well. But when the deposits are several feet thick, they really have to move that sand somewhere else. That can be really expensive — and you have to figure out what to do with it."
Shouse said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prohibits farmers from dumping sand back into the river without a federal permit, so most of it gets piled along the fields and used to fill giant holes left by the water.
That's what Hansen has done. But even when the sand is cleared, farmers' problems aren't over.
The sand and months underwater killed crucial microbes in the soil that help crops grow. Restoring those microbes, which develop naturally on plant roots, could take several years. Farmers plant corn, knowing it will grow inefficiently until enough microbes get back into the soil.
In Iowa, the flood inundated nearly 256,000 acres of cropland in six western counties, while in Nebraska, it swamped about 119,000 acres. Dan Steinkruger, the Farm Service Agency's Nebraska state executive director, said Iowa has more low-lying fields along the banks than his state.
Farmers in Nebraska and western Iowa lost a combined $300 million or more in crop sales and other economic activity to the flooding, according to the two states' Farm Bureaus.
Neither the Farm Service Agency nor other federal and state agencies have kept tabs on how much land has been cleared so far. But in speaking with farmers, it appears there is a long way to go.
Scott Olson has managed to restore about 140 of his 500 acres near Tekamah, Neb., that were submerged in last year's flood.
In one regard, he was lucky; most of his 3,000-acre farm was spared. But in the section that did flood, the water cut new holes and channels, creating drainage problems Olson expects will last for years. When the river receded, it left up to 15 feet of sand in some areas. Up to 5 feet remain.
The 55-year-old said he has spent more than $200,000 on bulldozers, land scrapers and workers thus far.
He's confident most of the cost eventually will be covered by disaster aid, but he's still waiting for that money to come through. Hansen said he also will qualify for disaster aid, but he expects the payments will cover only about half of what he's spent.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved more than $20 million in disaster aid for Iowa and Nebraska, which will help farmers with the cost of moving sand, grading land and filling holes.
"It's just totally, totally devastating," Olson said. "The dollar amount for what it takes to put it all back together again is going to be tremendous. And it's going to cost you, the taxpayer, in case you haven't already figured that out."