Cumpston Research

Off on Their Horizon, North Dakota Farmers See Little but Disaster
Published: April 24, 1997

FARGO, N.D., April 23— In a normal year, this is when most North Dakota farmers are planting the wheat, soybeans, potatoes and sugar beets that make agriculture by far the state's leading industry.

But this year has been anything but normal. For those tending the state's 31,000 farms -- raising cattle in the west or crops in the east -- the winter was the worst in memory. The snows that fell, and the floods they spawned, will cost farmers in the state tens of millions of dollars and drive some of them out of business.

The unrelenting storms of recent months brought as much as 117 inches of snow to some areas of North Dakota, three times the average, and this week floods reached historic levels along the Red River Valley, which, with nearly 40 percent of the state's 641,000 residents, is its most populous region.

Terry Compson, a farmer who lives south of here in the town of Horace and raises crops on 4,000 acres at 25 sites throughout the southeastern corner of the state, looked out the other day across water stretching to the horizon in some directions, and said, ''I hope I can get in by mid-May.''

The weather has been acutely hard on cattle ranchers as well, many of whom watched helplessly as their herds, blinded by snowstorms, wandered off and froze to death. State officials said a blizzard that swept across North Dakota in early April, the last of more than a dozen winter storms this season, brought the number of cattle lost to as many as 155,000, about a tenth of all the state's livestock.

Mr. Compson, 51, a farmer for all his adult years, saved his home in Horace through lessons learned in the region's last major flood, in 1979, when water came within nine inches of the foundation. He built berms around the property after that flood, and this spring they have kept out the rising waters of the Red River, as well as the smaller Sheyenne and Wild Rice Rivers, which run nearby.

But his farmlands are another story. ''I haven't even been able to look at all my fields,'' he said. ''The roads to reach them are still under water.''

Like many other farmers, Mr. Compson alternates his crops, planting wheat on acreage used the year before for soybeans, and vice versa. But now the flood has thrown his planned rotation into chaos: he has no idea when any of his fields will be suitable for seeding.

''So many times on a farm you come close and you work so hard, only to lose it,'' he said. ''We've gotten through hail, floods, grasshoppers, droughts, but you still get that pit in your stomach, wondering how you're going to pay the bills.''

Photo: Terry Compson, a farmer in the Red River Valley, looks out across water stretching into the distance, still hopeful he can plant by mid-May. (Dan Koeck for The New York Times) Map of North Dakota highlighting Horace: Like farmland all along the river, fields around Horace are flooded.

You can read the full story at

Debra Ann Miemietz Compson Class of 1974

Valley City High School

Valley City, North Dakota, United States

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