Derecho Devastation in Iowa: 3 Pig Farmers Tell Their Stories

( Abby Maxwell )

Terrifying. Ugly. Stunning. A storm so unexpected and unusual that three Iowa pig farmers couldn’t find words to adequately describe the day derecho winds struck their pig farms and homes. 

2020 has been full of hits to agriculture and the reality of just how much was lost due to the derecho storm is still yet to be determined. One thing is clear – pig farmers keep fighting and pigs are resilient. 

“Pigs are incredibly resilient. It’s really amazing when you think about how much they went through to survive that storm,” explains Abby Maxwell, field manager for JBS Live Pork. 

Out of 25,000 pigs they had to evacuate at eight sites near Keystone, Iowa, less than 50 pigs were lost due to the storm. 

The following stories are just a glimpse into what farmers across the Midwest, but particularly the state of Iowa, experienced on August 10.

The Day Derecho Hit Our Farm

At 11:44 a.m. on August 10, Kelly Sheets, an Iowa pig farmer, posted a simple plea on Facebook as 100-mph winds devastated his farm in central Iowa.
“Please pray. This is ugly.”

His wife, Anna, and their four-day-old baby girl, Sutton June, had just left for a doctor’s appointment when the storm approached. 

“She called me and said she couldn’t see anything – the wind was blowing too hard,” Sheets recalls. “I told her to pull off the road and sit tight. It just looked like a bad thunderstorm on the radar.”

But Anna called her husband back two minutes later and said it was worse. She couldn’t even see the end of the hood on her Acadia. 

“I hopped in my truck – which probably wasn’t the smartest thing – and headed to try to find her,” Sheets says. “But I didn’t make it and got stranded as well.”

Anna found a house not far from where she had to pull off the road and ran up to the house with their newborn baby in her arms to find cover. But no one answered and she was forced to run back to her Acadia and wait it out.

Kelly, Anna and Sutton June Sheets were less than five miles apart as rare, straight-line winds raged through their county. Helplessness, fear, panic and shock are just a few of the feelings they experienced as they waited the storm out. 

“I've never been in a hurricane, but I imagine that is awful close to what a hurricane looks like,” he says. Read the rest of his story here.

Our Derecho Story: The Trees Saved Our Pigs

When your 91-year-old mother says a storm is coming and it’s coming fast, you better listen, says David Martin of DCM Hampshires and Durocs in Marion, Iowa.

That morning David woke up to a humidity like he’s never experienced in his life. Hours later, a derecho windstorm struck Linn County, Iowa. For 40 minutes, winds raged and snapped over 100 mature evergreen and pine trees between their two farms located five miles apart. It even ripped down new high-line poles that were built to withstand 140-mph winds. Their pigs, housed in open-front buildings, walked around like a bunch of stunned zombies for hours after the storm passed.

“It was like nothing I've ever seen before,” he says. “I was in the basement. I heard the trees hit the roof of the house and one went through the roof. The rest of the trees were falling like crazy, but I never heard them because the winds were so loud.”

Most of David’s friends lost something in the storm, he says. There’s hardly a grain bin standing anywhere between their place and the state’s capital 120 miles away. Buildings down, animals without homes, houses destroyed. 

“There’s no grain storage around here. Most of the corn is so flat that it’s unharvestable. And it’s not going to come up because it broke off. Such huge losses – bin after bin, building after building – a tornado would have been easier for a lot of people,” David says.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa, received the brunt of the damage, explains Carly Martin, David’s daughter. It’s the second most populous city after Des Moines. For the derecho winds to peak at a place with this many people just makes it even more devastating for the state of Iowa. 

Harvester silos bent to a 90-degree angle, flat fields and obliterated buildings remain a haunting reminder of the storm no one saw coming.

“It could have been so much worse,” he says. “We were on the edge of it. We lost lots of trees, but our pine trees saved our buildings. It absolutely chewed the trees apart, but I believe that's what saved our pigs.” Read the rest of their story here.

Derecho Forces Evacuation of 25,000 Pigs After Winds Rip Barns Apart

It started off as any other Monday. Abby Maxwell, 30, made the 73-mile drive to Keystone, Iowa, where she oversees 53,000 head of hogs located at 19 different sites in her role as a field manager for JBS Live Pork. After a rather crazy day at work, she got into her car and headed home. Along the way, she got an unexpected call from her husband.

“He asked me, ‘How fast are you driving?’” Maxwell recalls. “I told him, and he said, ‘You need to drive faster because you're not going to make it with this storm coming.’ And he was right. I did not.”

Maxwell describes that moment in one word: terrifying.

“I was about 12 miles from my house when the derecho winds hit me. My car was blowing all over the road. I truly think my car was being picked up at one point. All of a sudden, I saw a tree fly about 20 feet in front of my car,” she says. 

At that point, she could see a house with their porch light on in the distance.  

“Thank goodness he let me in,” she says. “I’m not sure I would have made it home otherwise.”

Maxwell immediately sent a text out to her growers to let them know the storm was coming fast. She asked them to send her an update as soon as they could. Less than an hour later, if it was even that long, the phone calls and texts started coming in.

“Need trucks now. Barns down.”

Maxwell hopped back into her car and drove back to Keystone. For the past eight years, she’s managed the Keystone territory where she oversees all operations from checking in pigs when they arrive to managing feed, budgets, facilities and more.  

“It was the eeriest feeling when I came up over the hill at the first site because I had just been there three hours before,” Maxwell describes. “Everything looked different. It was flat, there was debris everywhere. When I got to my first pig barn, I could see the pigs standing on the slats because all the walls were gone and the roofs were gone.” Read the rest of her story here.

More from Farm Journal's PORK:

Derecho Forces Evacuation of 25,000 Pigs After Winds Rip Barns Apart

The Day Derecho Hit Our Farm

Iowa Farmers Assess Damage from Rare Windstorm

Our Derecho Story: The Trees Saved Our Pigs