Along with bringing one of the most precious commodities in north-central Montana — water — thunderstorms this summer also have been bringing the nemesis of farmers everywhere — hail, the Great White Combine.
On his birthday Monday, north Kremlin farmer Richard Pollington was looking at the damage a Sunday hailstorm did to what he said might be the best wheat crop he ever saw.
“You got a 60-bushel crop out there, it makes it a little tougher to see it on the ground,” he said.
The year has been up and down, with concerns about the entire state slipping into dry or drought conditions that were high in April, followed by extreme moisture in May and June creating presidential disaster-level flooding in some parts of the state, including Blaine, Chouteau and Hill counties and the Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy’s Indian reservations.
USDA Farm Services Agency Hill County Executive Director Les Respins said this morning that not all of the state has fared as well as this region for moisture.
“On one hand, we’re fortunate here,” he said. “Counties as close as (Butte-Silverbow) have been declared emergency drought, so the drought isn’t far away. It’s hard to believe here that there’s a drought anywhere.”
The region around Havre and on through the northeastern part of the state had fared better than much of the rest of Montana by the beginning of April, but moisture conditions here were starting to slip before the heavy rains.
The Havre reporting station at the Havre City-County Airport west of town recorded 1.92 inches of precipitation for the year by April, still well above the normal amount for that date of 1.15 inches.
Other regions of the state had fallen behind in precipitation by that time.
But by June 4, the day after the period listed in the presidential disaster declaration, the Havre station had recorded 9.68 inches of precipitation, compared to the normal amount of 3.95 inches.
Other nearby locations had received close to, or more than, 14 inches of rain from mid-May through June 4.
And the rain has continued, with light to heavy thunderstorms deluging areas off and on for the last two months.
As of Wednesday, the station reported 13.96 inches of rain for Havre, with the average amount for the year 9.83 inches.
But the storms have been spotty in how much rain they have dropped. Pollington said that, along with the pea- to marble-sized hail Sunday’s storm brought, it dropped 3 ½ inches of rain.
Havre also saw heavy rain that day, but less than an inch, according to the National Weather Service.
The hail also is spotty elsewhere in Hill County.
Lyle Williams, Pollington’s neighbor to the south, said he was hit by Sunday’s hail, but not as hard as Pollington.
Williams said that the hail didn’t hit too large an area of his crops.
“Where it hit it hurt the crops pretty badly,” he said.
Pollington said he estimated the hail hit close to two-thirds of his cropland, with damage ranging from 40 percent to 100 percent.
He said the storm stretched from Joplin east, and north to the Canadian border. But the hail didn’t hit everyone, as is normal.
“You never know how bad it’s going to be,” he said. “It can level the crop or do very little. That’s the way hailstorms are.”
He hasn’t heard from that many Hill County farmers who have been hit by hail, but those who have been hit were hit hard, Respins said.
“It was 80 to 90 percent loss on thousand-acre chunks,” he said.
Respins said Hill County has been luckier than some areas. Blaine County has had more damage, and a storm July 8 that stretched from Cascade County through Chouteau County into Glacier County caused a wide swath of damage — likely 140,000 to 150,000 acres of land in Chouteau County.
While insurance can help, it doesn’t pay nearly what harvesting a crop pays, especially one with a good yield, he added. Farmers can set their insurance to different levels of price and production, with the premiums going up for higher coverage.
“If insurance pays 60 or 70 percent, I would be surprised,” he said.
And the insurance doesn’t take into account inputs costs. Respins said that many local farmers this year had to fly in fumigants because the fields were too wet to drive in to spray. But insurance pays the same regardless of input costs, he said.
In a way, the weather this year is harder to deal with than a drought, he added. Most farmers can see a drought coming and reduce their input costs.
“It’s also sad to see a beautiful crop taken out by hail, of course,” Respins added. “It’s just hard to watch.”