By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
Tropical storm Irene powered its way through the region nearly a month ago, delivering perhaps the "new normal" for our climate-changed weather: torrential rain, explosive winds and an infrequent phenomenon, especially for farmers — sea spray.
Sea spray is salt water blown ashore from the tops of waves, and the harmful salt is the reason crops aren't planted close to the ocean. But Irene pushed salty moisture far inland, destroying produce such as winter squash, corn and tomatoes across southern
"We've never seen that kind of storm," said Brian Simmons, of Simmons Farm in
Salt-filled wind from
Narragansett Bay blasted about a quarter mile from shore to reach Simmons' 120-acre organic farm, coating buildings, trucks and, worst of all, acres of squash.
"You can see a strip of dead stuff," he said.
Ken Ayars, agricultural chief for the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM), said farms in eastern
Rhode Island suffered the most salt damage, such as Mello Farm on Aquidneck Island, which lost much of its late summer corn. Two miles inland from Rhode Island Sound, Wishing Stone Farm in Little Compton also suffered significant crop loss. Skip Paul, owner of Wishing Stone, said he lost $3,000 in specialty winter squash, and his cold crops — broccoli and cauliflower — weren't destroyed, but they just won't be of the quality that he likes to see coming off the farm.
Paul also brought up another important point concerning hurricanes that scrape the east coast. "These storms pick up all kinds of (non-native) bacteria, molds and insects and then deposit them here," he said. Paul also noted that in addition to this influx of invasives associated with hurricanes, heavy rain events, such as the remnants of tropical storm Lee that swept across the Northeast just a few days after Irene left, compact the soil, decreasing oxygen levels.
Further up the bay, the town of
absorbed 5.37 inches of rain from Irene, the most in the state. Yet, sea spray and wind decimated zucchini, winter squash and corn. "It wiped us right out," said farmer John Gervais who lost 80 percent of the corn on his 2-acre farm. "It's horrible." Warren
At least 3 miles north of the nearest saltwater river, Oakdale Farm in Rehoboth, Mass., lost nearly all of its summer squash, zucchini and peppers.
The loss of squash, much of which is usually frozen and sold to grocery stores through the offseason, will mean a big drop in income — and perhaps higher prices for consumers, predicted Marie Prey, CSA manager for Oakdale. "We're not going to do well this winter," she said.
The farm also lost two greenhouses during the storm. But like all farmers, Prey admitted she is at the mercy of the weather. "We did lose our crops, but not our lives."
Many orchards felt the stinging winds of Irene. Sandra Barden of the Barden Family Orchard in North Scituate said the orchard lost about 50 trees, most overturned at the roots, but "50 out of 2,000 isn't bad, and after we picked the fruit off of the fallen trees, we were able to stand quite a few of them back up."
The damage to crops and fruit trees, up to 30 percent across the state, prompted Gov. Lincoln Chafee to seek federal disaster relief and low-interest loans to help farmers rebuild. The loans are already available through the federal Department of Agriculture. There is no word yet from Congress and the secretary of agriculture about direct financial help.
Ayars said the increase in harmful storms and floods during the past decade have prompted him to encourage more farmers to sign up for federal crop insurance programs. "Each time we get one of these disasters it shows that it's probably worth it," he said. Ayars estimates that less than 25 percent of
farmers currently carry crop insurance. Rhode Island
The physical damage of the storm wasn't the only worry for many farms. Being without power for extended periods of time impacts farms that have refrigeration and packing rooms, and rely on electricity to keep the air and water moving into their greenhouses. Steve Hancock knows this all too well. After Irene knocked out power for nearly a week at his greenhouse operation, NorthStar Farms in
, he had the added aggravation of his energy provider, NStar, not wanting to repair the lines to his farm because they are on a private road. (We'll bet they don't mind sending his electric bill to a private road.) Westport, Mass.
One sign of relief in recent weeks has been shoppers returning to outdoor farmers' markets to restock their kitchens. At the
Hope Street market in Providence, Lynn Quigley of Woodstock Farm in , which had heavy crops loss from flooding, described business on recent Saturdays the "best markets ever. Everybody's had to start over." Connecticut