ALEXANDRIA, S.D. — Heading into 2019, fourth-generation Alexandria farmer Richard Aulner was thinking of taking it a little easier on his operation that includes cattle, crops and pigs.
He lives on the farm with his wife, Bobbie, and their two kids Jonathon, 15, and Stephanie, 13, but the work got done primarily with his dad, Ronnie.
“You know what they say about the best laid plans,” Aulner said with a chuckle. “It’s been a marathon.”
In mid-April, Ronnie unexpectedly died at the age of 70. On top of that, this year’s weather has been a farming nightmare. Spring blizzards, seemingly never-ending rains and so much flooding have created agriculture hurdles day after day.
But through perseverance, help from friends, and their family coming together, the farm has kept on.
“Every once in awhile Rich would stop, and get a little, well, nerve-wracked,” Bobbie said. “We call in the troops and some help would come in and they'd knock a day out and get a bunch of stuff done. And then we were back on track again.”
Early on, in addition to losing his father, Aulner was dealing with getting calves through a late blizzard that was followed by spring showers wreaking havoc on the fields.
“It was a lot of work, a lot of mud, (and) fight,” Aulner said.
The spring rains made planting season so difficult, Aulner planted 400 acres of beans and 250 acres of corn. That left about 750 acres unplanted.
“We had wet years before, and even times we didn't get a little bit farmed, but the rest of it was a good enough crop that we said it was all right,” said Aulner, who’s been farming since 1988. “When you can't get 60 percent of it farmed, that just a little too much water.”
While Aulner was without his dad’s help, the kids were up to the task of helping.
“Jonathan really stepped up. … He didn't grumble, he didn't do nothing. He just jumped in and went. I was pretty proud of him,” Bobbie said. “Then Stephie kind of stepped up in the house and she was keeping the house up, and I was working and Rich was working, so it kind of worked out really good.”
Kicked out of the house
On the night of Sept. 11 and into the next morning, more than 7 inches of rain came down in several places throughout the region.
There was water everywhere and it just kept getting worse.
On Saturday morning, Aulner spent a couple of hours repairing his mother’s roof. When he came home, Aulner said the water levels had risen a foot in just those couple of hours.
That’s when he decided his family needed to leave their own home, or they weren’t getting out.
“He says ‘Pack your stuff up,’” Bobbie recalled. “‘You gotta, you gotta go. I'm not driving my tractor through this again.’ We threw everything in garbage bags and put it in the loader bucket. And he drove us through it one last time.”
The days immediately following the rain weren’t so bad. But Aulner described his area having “a waterfall” that was nearly 30 feet wide.
So Bobbie and the kids moved in with her parents, Larry and Judi Kunkel, just on the northeast side of Alexandria.
Even though they were about four miles away, it might as well have been 100 for Bobbie.
“I didn't like him out here by himself,” she said. “It was horrible. I waited for the phone to ring every day. Because it was between the phone calls that was what really bothered me, because I didn't know what he was doing. You see these accidents all the time. I mean, he could fall into the pit. It's a farm. Accidents happen every day.”
“I find myself being just a little bit more careful, by golly,” Richard responded.
Along 258th Street, the road was underwater in three spots between the three miles from the Aulner’s home and Highway 262 to Alexandria.
Knowing her husband was surrounded by water and his tractors weren’t going to be able to drive through the water, Bobbie went on Facebook to find a solution, which meant a trip to Redfield to pick up a Jon boat.
On Sunday night, Bobbie launched the boat about a half-mile down the road.
“When we were just about to the end of the trees here, I called him and I said, ‘What are you doing?’ And he says, ‘Sitting in the chair pouting,’” she said.
“I said, ‘Well come get us we're over at the end of the trees and he's like, 'What?' So he came over and got us and he's like, ‘What is this?’... ‘It's your new boat.’”
After using the boat to navigate his property to find the roughly 20 to 30 cattle he was missing, Aulner then worked on finding a path to get out.
Utilizing aerial maps and his memory of the land, Aulner navigated through the fields up to the next road, a mile north, to 257th Street. That journey included cutting fences and making an additional three gates into the current fences.
For the next two weeks, Aulner was kept busy organizing and gathering his livestock onto fields and figuring out how to get feed to his livestock.
To feed his pigs, where their feed would typically be hauled in and unloaded, Aulner had to come up with a solution as the feed truck couldn’t do its usual drive up to the feed bins, unload and drive back. It was a task that typically took 15 minutes.
Instead, Aulner worked it out where he’d drive his tractor with his grain cart out through six gates, meet the feed truck on 257th Street, fill up the grain cart, and drive back to unload it into another trailer so he could go back to get the remaining feed. It was now nearly a four-hour chore that Aulner called “goofing off.”
“Goofing around is doing what I don’t want to do,” Aulner said.
Once he finally got somewhat caught up, Bobbie and the kids finally came home and stayed when they were able.
And Aulner found time to attend some of his kids’ activities and he enjoyed a steak dinner for his 50th birthday on Oct. 6.
The road opens back up
While Aulner was trying to get his livestock taken care of preparing for harvest, Bobbie was working to get the road opened back to their house.
For the three-mile stretch of 258th Street that was closed off, the road passed through two townships, Wayne and Pleasant.
Wayne Township did its part pumping the water out of the two spots that were covering the road.
Bobbie marked the progress of Wayne Township’s pumping efforts where the water line and used a tire as her marker.
Pleasant Township decided to reallocate its resources to digging out a ditch to the southeast where much of the resting water was sitting to drain water out that direction to pour into Plum Creek.
“The township guys are underappreciated,” Aulner said. “They try, but they can only do so much.”
Digging out the drainage ditch was supposed to help drain five feet of water out quickly, but it didn’t work. It allowed Aulner to attack the one big spot of resting water on 258th street in Pleasant Townships boundary himself by pumping the water elsewhere.
On Oct. 11, Aulner set up one of his tractors and began pumping. Eighteen days later, the family got the call. The road home was open.
“It was about time,” Bobbie said. “I said (to Stephanie), ‘Pack it up. We're going home,’ and she said, ‘We are?’”
“The first day (back home), I think she sat on dad's lap, I think most of the day,” Bobbie said of Stephanie. “She was right there. She wasn't going anywhere.”
“I enjoyed being spoiled, but I missed being home,” Stephanie said.
Closing out 2019
As the family is getting back to a routine at home, Aulner is looking to the future of his operation. He realizes with much of his land covered in water, most likely for the next couple of years, there will be a lack of pasture and feed.
Because of that, Aulner is considering selling off all his cattle.
“I hate the idea,” Bobbie said. “I get it, but it took 50 years to build it. So what takes 50 years to build takes one night, two nights to tear down, and it just, it's sad.”
Bobbie has already gotten rid of goats and most of her rabbits.
While the idea of selling the cattle is on the table, Aulner is looking to keep his cattle until the end of the year, at least hoping to get a little better price if he decides to sell.
Aulner finished fall harvest recently by combining the last 70 acres of his corn the day before a winter storm passed through the region.
The Aulners have enjoyed some of the little things in life like being able to visit Bobbie’s parents’ home, along with a stop at Richard’s mom’s house for Thanksgiving.
“We're just thankful to be together,” Bobbie said. “I think that's the main thing.”
With just more than a month remaining in 2019, Aulner admits it has been tiresome but he’s made it through the worst and knows he wasn’t the only farmer who struggled. He says he finally sees a light to end 2019.
Despite the tough year, it hasn’t put much of a damper on the Aulners or their sense of humor.
“I keep saying that I’m going to have a big New Year’s party, and 2019 can kiss mine,” Aulner said.
“I don’t want a party,” she responds. “I just want (2019) to go away. Just go away quietly.”