Hail storms are always problematic. But historic storms are wreaking havoc on Central Nebraska farms

Aug. 7, 2023, 9 a.m. ·

Hailed Out Corn in Franklin County
Hail damaged corn grows in a field northwest of Franklin. Insurance agent Steve Skupa estimates this corn will have a 50%- 70% lower yield at harvest time. (Photo by Brian Beach/Nebraska Public Media News)

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May 5, 2023 is a day many residents of Franklin, Nebraska will never forget.

That’s when tennis-ball sized hail and heavy winds bombarded the Republican River Valley town of fewer than 1,000 people.

By late July, roofing crews could still be seen throughout the town, working through triple digit temperatures to repair damage that was sustained several months ago.

Ava Goosic is one of many Franklin residents who lost most of her property in the hail storm.

She said her siding, roof, gutters, egress window covers, mailbox and garage door were totaled in the storm.

“I think it's a shock for everyone because no one really expected it to hit like that,” Goosic said. “I've never seen a hailstorm like that for my whole life.”

Goosic said she’s unable to get a roofing appointment for her house until the end of September, but she’s confident the town will eventually return to normal.

The 2.5 inch hailstones caused plenty of damage to Franklin’s buildings, but when severe hail strikes the fields outside of town, it destroys an asset no repair crew could possibly fix — farmers’ crops.

A visit to Nelson Trambly’s farm 20 miles northwest of Franklin reveals fields of tall, leafy corn and verdant soybeans growing in the late summer sun.

But other parts of Franklin County don’t look nearly as nice.

Trambly drives his pickup down minimum maintenance roads under a bright blue sky to point out sickly looking crops.

“Normally there's leaves the whole way up the plant,” he said. “See how these plants have less leaves? They're all gone. It looks like you, I don't know, paper chopped them or confetti chopped them.”

Trambly is describing textbook evidence of hail damage — something he’s had a lot of experience with recently.

Three of the last four years, some of his crops have been “hailed out,” resulting in lower crop production and lower profits at harvest time.

This year, a July 4 storm tore through Trambly’s acreage, right as some of his corn was beginning to tassel, which is the time the crop is most susceptible to hail damage.

Three weeks later, his corn hasn’t fully recovered.

The financial blow is lessened by the payout from crop insurance, but Trambly said there’s another aspect to hail damage that money can’t fix.

“The problem is you sit there and you look at the crop, and then it's an emotional attachment, because of all your work that you put into it,” he said. “And, honestly, once you have a hailstorm, it's like harvest starts right away.”

Nelson Trambly and son
Nelson Trambly stands with his son at his farm near Campbell. Trambly’s crops have sustained hail damage three of the last four years. (Photo by Brian Beach/Nebraska Public Media News)

After a hailstorm, farmers have a decision to make.

Some may choose to replant their field with a cover crop or feed for animals, while others may continue farming the existing crop and expect a lower yield, which is Trambly’s plan this year.

Weeds offer another challenge for farmers in the weeks following a hail storm.

When crops lose their leaves from hail damage, they no longer form a canopy that blocks sunlight from the ground, allowing invasive plants to sprout up in the gaps.

“Now with the sunlight, they'll explode,” he said. “Like right here along the edge, those weeds will explode. And if a guy doesn't disc that or spray it or do something with it, they'll be waist to head high in less than two weeks.”

Trambly’s situation is not unique to farmers in the region.

Steve Skupa has been a crop insurance agent in the Franklin County town of Campbell since 1978.

Skupa said the number of hail claims this year is in line with the historical average, but the severity of the hail is significantly elevated.

“Usually, the storms on average will fall in that 15%-25% range of damage,” he said. “And the last three out of the last four years, a lot of them fall into that 50%-100% of damage.”

He said that for every dollar a farmer has spent on insurance premiums, about $1.5 to $2 has been paid out for claims in south central Nebraska over the last five years.

The Nebraska Department of Insurance has to approve insurance rate increases which has kept the price of local crop insurance premiums from spiking in the short term .

Skupa said there’s an unwritten rule that the state doesn’t allow insurance companies to drop rates too much to try and buy business or raise the rate to an astronomical amount.

However, if the current weather trends continue and insurance companies continue to lose money on policies in the region, that could all change.

Retired agricultural meteorologist Bryce Anderson said the shift in weather patterns began over the last 10 years, which featured more severe hail in regions east of the Panhandle

“We have seen wide, wide coverage of hail storms in central and eastern Nebraska to an extent that historically has not really been that prevalent,” Anderson said.

Nebraska’s severe weather is a feature of unstable weather patterns that stay in the same spot for a long time, he said.

“The occurrence of this is something that climate scientists are showing more of a tendency to attribute to the impact of the sustained warming that we've seen across the globe,” Anderson said.

Trambly’s seen a lot of change in his more than 20 years of farming experience and he has no intentions of letting a hail threat drive him away from agriculture.

He said he expects a few more years of bad hail before the weather cycle is over.

“Somebody told me that an old farmer says weather patterns are five year cycles,” Trambly said. “So, I guess we’ve got another year or two left.”