The rainbow in the storm

The rainbow in the storm
Justin Mensik and his family delivered hay to stranded cattle for two days via air boat until water levels subsided. Photo by Justin Mensik.

The Mensik family farmers slept peacefully that Thursday evening, having worked frantically all day to protect the 2,000 acres that defined their lives. By nightfall, they’d finally gotten all the cattle to higher ground, where they were safe from the storm’s punishing wind and snow.

For now, that was all that really mattered.

“We woke up Friday morning and we had water everywhere,” said 19-year-old Justin Mensik.

The Platte River that runs just north of the Mensik family farm near Morse Bluff, Nebraska, had reversed course overnight, drowning their lower fields of corn, soybeans and grazing land. When Justin woke up and saw the water rushing across the land, his first thoughts went right to the cattle. If they were gone, the family would be ruined.

He breathed a deep sigh of relief when he saw them on the ridgeline through the camera of his drone: 40 red, shivering bodies huddled together where they’d been left the night before, just inches from the water that had made the ridge an island.

“I’m like, ‘Holy shit, we’ve got a chance!”

The next two days, Justin and his twin brother, Michael, hauled hay and alfalfa to the cattle on the ridgeline until the waters finally receded and the animals could walk away on their own. But there was one last problem — one cow had given birth on the island and her baby wasn’t strong enough to walk.

So, the brothers took turns lugging the 30-pound calf, trudging through thick mud and sand for half a mile in their heavy boots. Justin’s Apple watch recorded a lot of exercise points that day, but that was all right with him. Not a single cow or calf was lost in the historic mid-March flood that, overnight, turned 75 of Nebraska’s 93 counties into federally designated disaster areas.

But the jury is still out on when the brothers will be able to reach their semis and haul their corn, all 100,000 bushels, to the ethanol plant in Columbus, 34 miles west. The roads can handle four-wheelers and heavy-duty trucks, but a semi? Not a chance. Until the dirt road can hold more weight, the family won’t get paid.

So they fix fence.

And wait.

* * *

It’s early April now, and the smell of cheeseburgers and warm salted pretzels wafts through Lincoln’s Pinnacle Bank Arena, where thousands of Nebraska teenagers mill about in their royal blue corduroy jackets at the 91st state convention of the Future Farmers of America. Justin joins the 9,000 Nebraska FFA members clad in jackets with their towns and villages embroidered in yellow on the back.

Future Farmers of America students and advisers gather outside Lincoln’s Pinnacle Bank Arena, where the group’s 91st state convention was held.

It’s the only jacket they’ll wear from the time they join their local FFA chapter as early as 7th grade to the time they graduate high school.

After that, the jacket might migrate to a box in a basement, folded neatly on top of a pile of others — the same blue corduroy embroidered in yellow that belonged to parents, grandparents, uncles and cousins. Those symbols of pride, hard work and dedication to the future of agriculture don’t get lost, and they never get thrown away.

But this year, some jackets were lost, not because they were left at practice or at grandma’s house. They were lost in water – the “100 Year Flood” that ravaged the state in mid-March, drowning herds of cattle and crushing homes and barns with jagged ice chunks that struck with the force of a bomb blast.

“What I see from the ag industry is that we are resilient,” summed up Krystl Knabe, Nebraska’s state director of agriculture education. “I see that from our members as well. When you’re raised in the ag industry, you’re taught that at a young age.”

She got to hand-deliver one FFA jacket to a student who had lost it the flood. And she knew that student would keep wearing that jacket, come hell or high water.

“They’re not going to let something like this stop them.”

* * *

Justin and Michael graduated from North Bend High School last year, but their FFA membership will last for three more. Justin has always had a knack for natural resources and production ag, while Michael focuses on mechanics and welding. Together, they’ll use their agriculture degrees from Northeast Community College in Norfolk to take over the family farm one day.

At the state convention, Justin’s fifth time at state, he watched his friends sing in the talent show and compete in speech. He watched livestock showings and listened to keynote speakers share their agricultural experiences. Flood conversations flowed through the mass of teenagers in blue corduroy, everyone desperate to know their neighbors were OK.

Jayla Froman of Lynch, Nebraska, competed at the state convention, representing her “Boyd County” chapter, lettered in yellow on her back.

When the Niobrara River flooded, it hit the east side of Lynch hard. Jayla was stuck in another town for a state speech competition while her parents evacuated. Their farm was on high enough ground that most of their cattle and crops survived, but she had to dig out six dead calves from the mud when she got home.

But Jayla jumped right into providing whatever relief she could for the people in town who had lost their homes. She worked hard for days to gut houses, rip up carpet and throw away moldy belongings.

“It’s hard watching someone throw away a lifetime of memories because it’s all sopping wet,” she said.

At one church service, the minister addressed the tendency of people to ask “why” after a tragedy. He told them that while no one had an answer, there was a silver lining somewhere.

“Everyone’s looking for the rainbow in the storm, and it’s been our community,” Jayla said. “Our community has been the rainbow in the storm.”

* * *

Justin Mensik knows he doesn’t have to be a farmer. He’s already made money capturing drone footage of nearby farms, and his flood videos made national news. He also has his own drum business. He knows, too, he could find a job on the railroad.

The massive floods scared him. How long would they last? Would the family recover? It was the most water any of them had ever seen, including Justin’s grandfather.

And yet, no one hung their hat up for good. They saw what had happened, and they resolved to plan better for next time.

So Justin has no plans to leave his family’s business. For five generations, the Mensik men have worked hard on their 2,000-acre farm. Why give up now? He gets to be his own boss, and he likes knowing something else: he’s helping feed the world.

“Farming’s still the best thing you could do with your life.”

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