Commodity Crop Farmers Benefit from Heavy Moisture

Flooding in the Flathead Valley has damaged high water table crops but agriculture experts say the moisture will help most farmers in the long run

By Maggie Dresser
Saturated farmland off of Steel Bridge Road in Kalispell after flooding along the Flathead River on June 15, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Two weeks ago, Randy O’Connell was surveying his grain and hay crops in Kalispell’s Lower Valley, wishing for more rain as his 2,000-acre property was starting to dry up.

Now, about 100 acres are under water as Ashley Creek floods parts of the land his family homesteaded five generations ago.

“We haven’t seen this since this kind of flooding event since 1975,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell says those 100 acres of crops are too damaged to recover, but the remainder of his property, which sits on higher ground, is in good shape for the season now that it’s receiving so much moisture.

“Up high, we’ve got some really good crops overall,” O’Connell said. “It’s just the low ground that’s getting saturated.”

O’Connell sells hay locally to customers in the Flathead and within a hundred-mile radius from Missoula to Eureka, and he says he’s about to start cutting hay once the weather dries out – about a month later than a normal year – but he says that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“It’s not going to change prices much,” O’Connell said. “We will have a better overall hay year than we had last year with the extra moisture. If you look at the big picture, we do 2,000 acres of hay and the high ground is making up for that loss.”

Jessica Torrion, an associate professor and the superintendent of the Northwestern Ag Research Center at Montana State University, says the rain has generally not been negative in the Flathead Valley so far.

“Most of what I hear is that it’s positive in the farmland unless the farms are really low and get flooded.”

At Two Bear Farm in Whitefish, Todd and Rebecca Ullizio’s organic vegetable farm sits on a high water table, and they are unsure of what impacts the moisture will have on their crops.

While there are five inches of standing water in some areas of their fields, all of the crops sit on raised 6-inch beds and have so far been unaffected.

“I would say this is pretty unusual,” Todd Ullizio said. “But every year it seems to be something, so it’s not too surprising. It’s mainly impacting us because we grow vegetables, and we are in the harvest season. Unlike a grain grower, we are harvesting five days a week and we are having a hard time getting into the fields to harvest or weed.”

Ullizio has been digging drainage ditches to move excess water and he says they dug drain tile into the ground when they first started farming on the property, using an excavator to dig three-foot ditches and install perforated pipes.

“Raised beds and drain tiles have saved us so far,” Ullizio said. “The main concern is that plant roots need to breathe and if that soil stays waterlogged, that health will decline.”

Commodity crops like winter wheat, spring wheat and cereals are benefiting the most from the rain, Torrion says, and the timing has been perfect. But after the moisture, it’s important for the temperatures to rise because plants need warmer weather in order to hit the reproductive stage.

Since Montana experienced a drought last year, there was likely an allowance for moisture storage in the soil. If moisture is limited during the summer months, Torrion says the current rainfall will help in the long run.

“I think the ground is in a much better position now after the drought last year,” Torrion said. “Our ground has an ability to store this moisture.”

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