As Rains Soak Iowa, a Farmer Talks About Life on the Plains

It's been worse, but the balance between too much rain and not enough is a constant concern.

When Mike Nurre heard the thunderstorm and flash-flood warnings for his county this weekend, he couldn't help but worry.

"The weathermen kept talking about these heavy rains, and we'd already had a couple inches a few days before that," says Mr. Nurre. "I hate to see things wash." He'd seen rain flood fields and wash crops away too many times during his lifetime of growing corn and raising milking cows in eastern Iowa.

A farm needs rain, but not too much - which means a storm can be either a blessing or a curse. "Most times it's a blessing," says Nurre.

If you don't get enough rain, your crops suffer. But you get too much, and it can mean real trouble.

On Father's Day in 1994, for instance, Nurre had been hoping for rain. He was inside the house on the phone. His son was outside, leaning up against the garage door.

So far that spring, the weather had been almost perfect - warm enough for the corn and oats to take root and just wet enough for them grow like wild. But the plants were ready for a bit more rain.

Nurre says it was the nicest crop they'd ever had on the 140 acres he took over farming from his father. And that was a relief. The year before, Iowa suffered some of the worst flooding in decades. A couple of Nurre's pastures looked more like lakes. His crop yields were cut in half. "It was a dandy," he says.

So, in that spring of 1994, it was nice that things were looking up. Then the crack of lightning struck. It sent a shock through his son Adam and opened the skies: a deluge of water and ice. "It was the worst hail storm I'd ever seen. The corn was about that high," he says, pointing to his hip. "Five minutes later, it was stubble, gone."

His son was fine, but his entire crop was wiped out.

"The first thing I did was run to see my insurance coverage to see how much I had," he said. "It doesn't hit you at first."

Nurre was covered for most of the damage, so the farm survived. But so has the memory, and vividly. It wasn't far from his mind when the rains started pelting down June 14.

In Cedar Rapids, just 50 miles away, 3.1 inches of rain fell in just five hours. The flooding closed roads, and high winds cut off electricity. Several hundred miles away in southwest Iowa, 8 to 10 inches fell in six hours, swelling a river near Griswold to overflowing. The whole town, more than 1,000 people, had to be evacuated.

But at the Nurre farm, only a third of an inch fell. The rain helped fill Bear Creek, which runs through the pasture near the milking barn.

The fields were too wet to work in on June 15, so Nurre spent the morning grading the mile-long lane that leads to the white clapboard farmhouse his father bought in 1948.

But the crops weathered the storm just fine. In fact, they appeared to be thriving. And Nurre hopes they'll continue to do just fine. But the forecast, at least for the next couple of days, is for more rain. "I worry about the weather every year, but I'm not too worried right now," says Nurre, looking out at the clouds gathering on Iowa's wide horizon. "I think we're going to have a pretty good year, and dairy prices are looking pretty good, too. Things should be fine."

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