Relatively disastrous’ hail storm shreds east Yellowstone County crops

When retired farmer Leroy Gabel heard hail pelting his house early Tuesday morning, his first thought was, “Oh, damn.”

Gabel leaped from his bed to check his windows. It was 2:30 a.m., so there wasn’t much to see, but he spotted the telltale wind and pellets of ice. There wasn’t much to do but hope it didn’t break through his house.

When the sun rose, visibility rose with it. He and his son, Greg, surveyed their one-and-a-half-mile field of crops. Across the farm, stalks were bent or broken. The marble and pea-sized hail had torn leaves from stems, and kernels were beaten or knocked from their heads. Leroy described the scene as “relatively disastrous.”

“It looks like someone came through with a weed wacker,” Greg said.

Hail fills a ditch near Shepherd after a storm damaged crops in a swath from Billings to Huntley at 3 a.m Tuesday.

LARRY MAYER, Billings Gazette

Early Tuesday morning, a hail storm brewed above Billings and traveled east, pouring most heavily in Huntley and Shepherd. Reports of hail came from as far as Ballantine. Most accounts say the hail hit around 2:30 a.m., and a severe thunderstorm warning was issued at 3:30 a.m.

On the outskirts of Huntley, hail reached nearly 3 inches in size or roughly that of a baseball, National Weather Service meteorologist Nickolai Reimer said. Hail nearing an inch in size can destroy crops, and anything larger than that can damage property.

Hail over two inches, Reimer said, is enough to seriously injure any living creature caught outside.

At the Gabels’ farm, not all the crops were damaged, but the vast majority were, Greg said.

It’s not enough to spell total catastrophe for their farm, Leroy said. As an experienced farmer of 50 years, he’s seen his share of disasters and worked through them.

But that doesn’t mean it will be painless.

“It’s more than an unfortunate storm,” Leroy said. “It affects all of our paychecks.”

Corn stalks near Huntley are shredded as crops were damaged by a large hail in a swath from Billings to Huntley at 3 a.m Tuesday.

LARRY MAYER, Billings Gazette

While not every crop was totally destroyed, even a little damage can mean less produce when it’s time to harvest, Greg explained. Sugar beets, which Greg watches over, will put most of their energy into repairing the leaves. Not as much nutrients or attention will go to the roots — the money maker of the plant.

Barley and similar plants won’t fare much better, Leroy said. Like the sugar beets, destroyed leaves and stems will be the priority of the crops. Everything the Gabels can sell will be an afterthought in the repair process.

It spells a significantly smaller yield this year. Smaller yields mean less money and all the financial burdens that come with it.

For Greg, it’s a bitter disappointment, especially because this season was looking to be better than others, he said.

“You do whatever you can to mitigate risk,” Greg said. “But there’s nothing you can do about Mother Nature.”

Farmers who have federal crop insurance and lost crops to the hail storm have around 72 hours to file a claim, Director of USDA’s Billings Risk Management Agency Eric Bashore said. Depending on how many crops are lost and how much money farms anticipate to make, farmers can receive cash to help them recover.

Montana Insurance Commissioner Troy Downing advises all affected by the hail storm take pictures of their damages before cleaning or making repairs. He also warns those affected to be wary of “storm chasers,” or people from out of state who scam people by pretending to be contractors.

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