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'A million-dollar rain ': Drought-hit Minn. farmer feels ups, downs of passing storm

NBC News

Soybean farmer Dean Tofteland smiles at the gift of sudden rainfall on his crops in Luverne, Minn.

Covering the news occasionally produces unexpected insights, as happened when a recent assignment to document the impact of a corporate meltdown turned into a lesson on the raw realities of farming and the weather, both drought and rain.

It was mid-afternoon on a Thursday in the waning days of summer, and we were in the town of Luverne (pop. 4,745), in the southwestern corner of Minnesota.


Luverne is close to the borders of two states -- Iowa to the south and South Dakota to the west -- and about 30 miles from the city of Sioux Falls.

NBC News' senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers, our camera crew and I had traveled there to interview Dean Tofteland, a farmer of corn and soybeans who lost access to his own money when a financial firm collapsed last year. He had parked his money in a customer account, to use as a protection against fluctuations in crop prices. 

Tofteland testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee about his loss and what what it meant for his farm business, and whom he thinks should be held accountable. (All that is part of a story we intend to report for NBC Nightly News in the coming weeks.)

But on that afternoon at Tofteland's farm, something else happened: another story about the realities of farming and the weather, of drought and rain.

According to a report by the U.S. Drought Monitor released late last month, drought covers 62.9 percent of the lower 48 states. It is centered on the lower Midwestern region.

'The garden spot of Minnesota'
As I drove west across the middle of the state, from the airport in Minneapolis to Luverne on Route 212, I passed through low hills covered with corn crops. While many of the nation's farms are grappling with drought, most of the corn plants here appeared lush and green, with only isolated dried-out brown spots near the base of some stalks. 

When Tofteland called me on my cellphone to gauge my progress into town, I mentioned that to him.

"You're driving through the garden spot of Minnesota," he said. "It's probably quite beautiful. They've had a fair amount of rain up there."

NBCNews.com special: Drought of 2012

Tofteland told me it was a different story on the farms in the southern part of the state, where the drought had taken a toll.

The rolling fields of corn continued throughout most of my drive. But the closer I got to Luverne, the more brown spots I saw amid the stalks.

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Drought conditions plague much of the United States after a summer of scorching temperatures and a lack of rain. The dryness is affecting America's farmland, threatening crops like soybean and corn.

It was a fairly hot and humid day, so we had decided to do Tofteland’s main interview indoors, at his home, and save the outdoor shooting on his farm for later in the afternoon, when the sun and temperature were both lower (lower sun provides better light for shooting outdoor video).

Weather takes a turn
As we prepared to leave Tofteland's house at around 5 p.m. we noticed that the sky -- which had been blue and clear all day, with a hot sun -- was now turning slightly gray, with small rain clouds.  A check of a mobile weather app with radar showed only a very small blob of rain and possible lightning in the area, surrounded by clear skies.

We set out for Tofteland's farm, about 5 miles south of Luverne, where we began shooting video of the farmer inspecting his corn crops -- cap on head, glasses, striped short-sleeved shirt, jeans.

As he pulled down the sides of a few ears of corn for us, revealing the cobs underneath, it started to rain.

It was now after 6 p.m., and the rain clouds seemed to have amassed directly above Tofteland's property. They were darker gray than before, but we could still see clear sky off to the west, and the sun in its midst. We checked the weather app again. The radar showed the storm blob bigger than before, but still nothing else incoming.

We looked up at the clouds to try to discern their direction. It was difficult to tell. One moment, they appeared to be moving north and east, the next the opposite.

As it began to rain steadily, Lisa set up office in our rental vehicle to work on the "standup" part of her script -- the portion where the correspondent appears on camera in the story.

We chose to believe that it would be a passing storm. We could still see the sun right behind the edge of the clouds.

We decided to shoot some other indoor video we needed while we waited for it to clear up -- shots of Tofteland looking through financial account statements. 

Our crew, Mark Falstad and Heidi Hesse, out of Minneapolis, set up their gear in Tofteland's farm garage, where he had a workbench and various tools and farm implements.

After we finished shooting Tofteland’s documents, we turned our attention back outside. The clouds appeared to have darkened, and expanded. I looked up at one of the edges, and could see cloud parts forming outward, and outward, into masses that were not there moments before.

"This thing looks like it's really exploding," Tofteland said.

The rain began coming hard, in sheets. Ominous dark gray now dominated the sky, punctuated by frequent lightning flashes and thunder.

NBC News

Heavy rain falls on Dean Tofteland's crops in Luverne, Minn.

The sun and those tantalizing clear skies were still visible to the west, but as a sliver becoming smaller and smaller.

Then Tofteland learned that the National Weather Service had just issued a severe thunderstorm warning for the immediate area -- pretty much for the exact latitude and longitude of his farm.

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We had been waiting out the weather for more than an hour, and it was almost 7:30. Lisa and I were planning to drive the 3 1/2- hours back to Minneapolis that night, ahead of our flights back to Washington the next morning. We both decided to stick it out, hoping the storm would pass and we could still get the rest of our shooting done before sunset.

But it was clear to Tofteland that the storm was blowing our plans around like scattered thistles.

He felt a need to apologize for the inconvenience.

"Hey, at least it's good for your crops," we said, meaning it.

As we stood waiting inside Tofteland's garage, the rainfall ratcheted up further, first becoming torrential, then epically torrential. The winds picked up and began whipping the trees along the edges of the crops. The gray clouds had darkened further, and eventually spread to every corner of the visible sky. It clearly was not going anywhere.

"Boy -- that’s a slow-moving storm," Tofteland observed.

The water was now coming down so fast that it was far exceeding the ability of the ground to absorb it. The dirt -- now mud -- of the open space in front of the concrete garage apron began developing large puddles and streams. It had become the kind of rain that makes you wonder about rainfall totals, and possible records.

Like a boy at Christmas
That is when we started to pay close attention to Tofteland, as we realized what we were actually observing.

He was staring out the garage window, at all that rain. His eyes wide with wonder. A smile was spreading across his face. He looked like a boy confronting stacks of presents under the tree on Christmas Day.

We were witnessing a farmer getting a sudden and unexpected ride out of a serious dry spell. 

"We haven't had a storm like this in a long time," he said quietly. "This is the first one we've had all year."

"This," he said, "is a million-dollar rain."

NBC News

Buildings on Dean Tofteland's farm in Luverne, Minn., get pummeled by a late-summer downpour.

Just like that. One good, soaking rain could be a significant revenue boost for local farmers.

Tofteland explained his accounting, why and how the rainfall would boost his and other farmers' harvest of soybeans. The soybeans had been dry all summer, he said, but they can adapt to additional moisture late in the season. 

A rain such as this one, he estimated, could add two bushels of harvestable soybeans to each acre of crop. Over his 1,200 acres, that would add up to 2,400 extra bushels. At $15 per bushel, that would mean a $36,000 bonus for his farm alone. By his reckoning, those two extra bushels per acre could add up to $1 million for all the local farmers in the region's 12 townships.    

No wonder he was smiling. But his delight -- which was as much for his fellow farmers as for himself -- did not last long.

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A few minutes later, something else began falling from the sky: small, white pellets of hail, which bounced as they hit the ground.

I picked up one that had fallen close to the door: it was smooth, gray-white and about the size of a penny.

The severe drought ruining crops around much of the United States has spared the Pacific Northwest. Farmers in Washington are enjoying high crop yields and high prices.

Just as suddenly as the rain had leaped in volume, so did the hail. Soon, the visible ground was covered with bouncing white pellets. And they were increasing in size.

Tofteland suddenly bolted toward a side door inside the garage, leading to an adjoining machine shed.

"Listen to this," he said. "When the hail falls like that, listen to what it sounds like in here."

The roof of the shed was metal, and what might have been hundreds or even thousands of hailstones were striking it, hard.

The sound was deafening. We had to cover our ears after a few seconds.

Drought expected to take toll at checkout

For Lisa, Mark, Heidi and I, the storm and its hail was a bit of a minor adventure, a natural event, interesting for spectators. But for Tofteland, weather events like this one held his livelihood and those of all farmers like him in their grip.

His face had darkened now. His brow was furrowed, his eyes intense, his mouth twisted into the beginnings of a scowl.  

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From good to bad
While the rainfall had been good for the crops, the hail was clearly not.

"It's bad for the soybeans," he said. "Hail like this can bruise the stems and cause the pods to fall off the plants."

The best-case scenario? The hail could subtract two bushels of soybeans per acre. It could completely erase his bonus from the rain, and those of all the other farmers.

The worst-case scenario? The hail could devastate all their soybean plants.

"It could wipe out the entire crop," Tofteland said.

Somewhere in between could be a loss for Tofteland of tens of thousands of dollars.

One minute Tofteland was up, the next he was break-even, or perhaps way down. 

What Mother Nature suddenly giveth, she just as suddenly could taketh away.

Americans tell their story of #Drought2012

Tofteland continued gazing out at his fields, eyes squinting into the distance. He was like every farmer who had ever lived -- looking up at the sky, wondering whether the weather would bestow benefits or costs.

Although the National Weather Service announced that its severe thunderstorm warning would end by 7:45, this storm continued to develop past that prediction. Its clouds churned in multiple directions, and small tendrils of clouds appeared to reach down toward the ground. 

The mobile weather app's radar showed its dramatic growth, roughly centered on Tofteland’s property.

The farmer drove up the road to figure out the storm's scope, and reported back that, just a mile away, it wasn't even raining and the sky was blue.

It seemed as if this storm was his farm's own personal supercell.

The weather app showed something else: a smaller protruding part on one side of the storm.

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"That's bad," Tofteland said. When you see something like that, he told us, tornadoes could form.

Right about then, we realized that the thunderclaps had begun to blend together into one long continuous rumble -- not unlike the sound of a freight train.

We decided to decamp.

As we drove away, the storm still towered in the sky, a fearsome and threatening giant, its destructive potential on full display, backlit by the sun setting below the horizon.

Barely an hour later, it was gone.

When we got to a hotel in Sioux Falls, the local TV station's weather report announced its sudden formation and demise in the same breath. The full sweep of radar imagery was the visual history of its instant growth and dissipation.

When we met up with Tofteland at 6:45 the following morning to finish the shooting, the sky was clear, and the sun's early morning light carried that extra beauty that seems to come only after a huge storm has passed.

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The storm had formed out of nowhere and dissolved back into nowhere. But its impact was significant and permanent.

The storm's rainfall totaled between 2 and 4 inches in two hours -- a potential windfall for Tofteland’s soybean crop, possibly generating tens of thousands of dollars in extra soybeans and revenue.

The largest hail was quarter-sized and had struck his plants -- a potential loss of tens of thousands of dollars in lost soybeans and revenue.

Some of the soybean stems had bent under the onslaught of hail, and their plants were still lying flat, Tofteland reported two weeks later. Others had bounced back and were upright again. He still does not know how much­­­ of his soybean crop was permanently damaged or how many soybeans were lost.

In the end, it may have been a million-dollar rain.

But Tofteland and his fellow farmers will not know until after the harvest which side of the ledger that sudden storm will impact more, whether it will lead to a gain, a loss, or neither. And, like their counterparts across the centuries of human agriculture, they are still dependent on the vagaries of the weather from moment to moment.

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