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Thursday, August 10, 2023

Climate costs at the market

Farmers face steep crop losses in US Northeast amid summer storms


University of Vermont photo
While much of the country suffers from extreme heat this summer, the US Northeast has seen excessive rains and extreme flooding, conditions that have decimated crops, drowned livestock, and left farmers struggling.

July has been especially wet for Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.  Hartford, Connecticut, for instance, has seen over 400% more rainfall than the historical average. After an already wetter-than average summer, a series of strong storms have overwhelmed rivers, causing them to jump their banks and flood farm fields across the region.

“It is certainly the worst flooding we’ve had in the last century,” said Scott Waterman, a spokesperson for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets. “The revenue losses are looking like they’re going to be incredibly high.

At least 7,000 acres of farmland in Vermont alone have been lost, according to Waterman.

Farmers are now working on cleaning up destroyed farm fields, replanting some crops, and repairing damaged equipment with an eye towards a wetter, more weather-extreme future as climate change worsens. Crops grown in the Northeast at the time floodwaters rose included tomatoes, squash, salad greens, cucumbers, corn, herbs, cabbage, onions, and feed for livestock.

Uprooted crops, drowned chickens

In Burlington, Vermont, extensive rain on July 10 and 11 flooded the nearby Winooski River, inundating surrounding farm fields. The Intervale Center, a sustainable agriculture nonprofit that offers financial support for seven farms, saw total or near-total crop losses on all. The Intervale Center is currently working to determine if there will be any federal disaster relief available to the farm.

The dramatic crop losses not only hurt farmers, but also mean that consumers who frequent farmers’ markets will see less available produce.

As well, community shared agriculture (CSA) programs, in which customers pay a monthly fee for in-season produce, are expected to experience difficulty meeting demand.

“This happened at the worst time in the growing season,” said Kelly Duggan, a spokesperson for the Intervale Center. “It’s pretty much devastated all of the farms.”

Farmers in Western Massachusetts also suffered devastating flooding this month as a result of already-saturated soil and multiple large rainstorms. At Natural Roots Farm in Conway, Massachusetts, floodwaters from the nearby South River on July 10 completely swamped the farm’s eight and a half acres of cropland, which had been growing salad greens, turnips, beets, carrots, squash, and peppers, among other produce. Crops were “literally blasted out of the ground,” said David Fisher, the farm’s owner.

“It’s been a very wet couple of weeks,” he said. “By the time we got down to the field to see what was happening, the fields were already going underwater. A frantic rescue mission ensued with all the family and farm crew just going top speed in the deep water to try to salvage equipment and livestock and anything we could.”

Fisher’s farm crew was able to save much of the farm equipment, but ultimately lost two dozen of their chickens to the floodwaters.

Even in areas where floodwaters did not uproot all the crops on affected farms, contamination is still a concern. Floodwaters can contain pathogens and pollution from nearby livestock operations and other sources, making eating any produce touched by floodwaters potentially unsafe.

Since many people in Vermont rely on local food, the flood damage will greatly impact the amount and types of produce available in the state this growing season, said Duggan. “It’s going to have huge implications for our food system,” she said.

Natural Roots also runs a local CSA program for 230 families, which is now being supplemented with donations of produce from other farms.

Rebuilding for a chaotic future

The Intervale Center, Natural Roots Farms, and many other Northeast farms are fundraising to support their efforts to rebuild, with Natural Roots aiming to raise $85,000 to cover the damage. Both farms expect a lengthy recovery process. “It’s a huge project to put the farm back together,” said Fisher.

Part of recovery at the Intervale farms will involve sorting through debris; the floodwaters scattered trash and uprooted plants across the farms, which will need to be cleaned up. “Another major part of the recovery effort is helping farmers navigate the grief and loss,” said Duggan.

Duggan and Fisher expect that this won’t be the last time their farms will be impacted by extreme flooding. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, floods have become larger and more frequent in the Northeast since 1965 due to climate change, as warmer temperatures worldwide increase the amount of moisture that weather systems carry.

Both farms are located in floodplains, spurring both the Intervale Center and Natural Roots to implement more flood resilience measures, such as planting vegetation buffers alongside the nearby rivers, as they work to rebuild the damage from this summer’s floods. “We’re working on solutions to invest in our natural environment in the future, going forward and taking action in the face of the climate crisis,” said Duggan.

Fisher has been pondering the question of how to farm sustainably in a floodplain, too. “What is sustainable and what is wise? We’re on some of the most fertile cropland, and there’s just not that much land like ours. So it’s a tough question,” he said. “What are the right steps going forward?”

The Northeast isn’t the only part of the country where farmers are struggling with climate change’s effects either. Across the country, the prevalence of extreme precipitation has risen substantially since the 1980s. In the Midwest, increased moisture has led to a growing number of farmers dealing with weather-related crop losses, as well.

 “We’ve never seen weather like this before,” said Fisher. “I’ve been here for 26 years, I’ve seen a lot of storms, a lot of extreme weather, but nothing like this. It’s extremely unpredictable right now, and we’re in an extremely vulnerable position.”