by CHRIS ROGERS
The same blizzard that trapped hundreds of motorists on February 24 dumped such heavy snow that scores of barns collapsed in Winona, Buffalo, and Trempealeau counties. Habitat for Humanity Winona-Fillmore Counties Executive Director Amanda Hedlund said her agency heard from three families searching for housing after their mobile homes collapsed under the snow. Farm Service Agency (FSA) officials in Wisconsin said the damage may lead to a disaster declaration.
At Clark Farms’ dairy outside Altura, the roofs of two separate barns collapsed and killed 14 cows, farmer Mark Clark reported. “We worked for quite a few hours to find anything that was still alive and looking good. Some of them we had to put down to put them out of their suffering,” he explained. Other cows had been trapped by the falling debris but were unharmed, he said. Now the Clarks have made space for their cows as best they can, brought in engineers to check the barns’ structural integrity and place braces to shore up the remaining roof, and cleaned as much snow as possible off the roofs in preparation for this weekend’s storm. Local FSA agents said they expect more buildings could collapse during this weekend’s mix of snow, ice, and rain.
“This weekend, they’re talking another major weather event, so I hope people will be proactive in trying to reduce some of the snow that’s on these buildings right now, but hopefully they’ll do it safely,” FSA Executive Director for Trempealeau and Jackson counties Julie Dokkestul said. An Eau Claire County, Wis., farmer reportedly died last month after falling while trying to clear snow off a barn roof.
In Trempealeau County, Dokkestul reported that seven barns collapsed and at least 40 cows were killed. In Winona County, FSA agents reported that 16 agricultural buildings collapsed, though Minnesota FSA officials said they could not provide any information on animal mortalities. Minnesota Milk Producers Association officials said they heard from eight farms in the Lewiston, Rollingstone, and Altura areas that had suffered collapses.
“Thankfully we have not heard any reports of any injuries or even rumors of it,” Dokkestul said.
“There were no humans lost in the ordeal,” Lewiston area dairy farmer Duane Wirt said. “We can always replace buildings or animals, but not human beings.”
A 50-by-60-foot section of Wirt’s heifer barn collapsed overnight. When Wirt came out for morning chores, he saw the wreckage. It could have been worse, though. The barn holds 170 animals, but only two were caught under the debris. Only one animal died. “We were fortunate,” Wirt said. “We heard of people that lost a lot more than that.”
The collapses at local farms come at a tough time, when many farmers — especially dairy farmers — are under financial stress after years of low prices for milk and crops.
“It’s, you know, one more thing — it’s like your car engine breaking down on you when you least expect,” Clark stated. However, he added, “I’ve farmed just my whole entire life. [Stuff] happens, and you deal with it. It’s not fun. It’s not good. It’s not anything. You just suck it up and deal with it.”
Even for the Clarks, however, it could have been worse. If their milking barn’s roof had collapsed at a different time, people could have been working underneath when it fell. “At least no one was hurt,” Clark said.
Many local farmers and FSA agents stated they had never seen anything like this. “I’ve been with the FSA since 1986, and, no, I’ve never had a situation like this with so many people affected throughout the county,” Dokkestul said. “You know, there are occasional barn collapses, but to be so widespread is unheard of.”
“Never,” Clark responded when asked if he had ever had a barn collapse. “My dad hasn’t either. In all his years of farming, we’ve never had a barn collapse, let alone two of them. I would understand if these buildings were 100 years old and on their last legs, but these are relatively new buildings.”
FSA offers some programs to help cover farmers’ losses from extreme weather. Dokkestul encouraged farmers who have suffered collapses to call their local FSA office. “Our offices are ready to assist producers, so we encourage all producers who have been impacted by these winter storms to contact their local FSA office or stop in to learn more about how we can help,” FSA Minnesota Outreach and Public Affairs Coordinator Lindsay Mutegi stated. Local FSA offices can be reached at the following numbers: Trempealeau County — 715-538-4396, ext. 2.; Buffalo County — 608-685-4454, ext. 2; Winona County — 507-523-2173, ext. 2.