Regional Agriculture Reeling from Storms
By Rick Hiduk
According to Pennsylvania Farm Bureau media relations director Mark O’Neill, it will be some time before farmers, growers, and economists can calculate the full extent of agricultural loss to recent storms and flooding. Estimates cannot be offered until it can be determined how much of this year’s crops can be salvaged.
“It’s a complicated issue,” Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture secretary George Greig said of deciding what can be saved and what should be plowed under. “We’re recommending that all of that produce (that sat in flood waters) be destroyed because there were municipal sewage plants under water and a lot of other contaminants, including (fluids leaked) from railroad cars and fuel oil tanks.”
“We know that there was petroleum in it because we could smell it and see it,” said Jeff Homer of Grovedale Winery in Wyalusing, in reference to floodwaters from Wyalusing Creek that poured through his lower vineyards in the wake of Tropical Storm Lee.
He considers himself to be one of the more fortunate growers. Some of his crops were affected by too much rain in general and were not inundated by the creek or nearby Susquehanna River. Those grapes that were above the water line can be picked and sorted by hand, Homer related.
“There’s light at the end of our tunnel,” he insisted, noting that, despite the lower yields, “the juice we are getting is good quality.”
For many farmers, however, salvaging what is left in the fields is easier said than done, O’Neill explained. “The ground will not support vehicles for harvesting. The hay looks good in the field, but, when you get into it, it’s too wet to harvest.”
Roy Darling of Mehoopany agrees. Much of his farmland on a peninsula called Jayne’s Bend was flooded by the Susquehanna, and that which wasn’t inundated is still retaining runoff and rainwater from a subsequent cutoff low pressure system that was finally pulling away from the area on Tuesday. He had made attempts to get into a cornfield above the water line but had to give up two passes into it.
Darling considers his uninsured 55 acres of corn and 47 acres of soybeans to be a total loss, but, like many farmers who depend on the river for its rich soil deposits or for irrigation, he takes the potential loss of $78,000 in stride. “At least we still have a home to live in,” he stated, adding that he did not lose any equipment or livestock. “There are a lot of people who lost more.”
What some perceive as resilience, Greig sees as potentially detrimental to the state’s efforts to properly assess agricultural loss and assist with recovery efforts. “Farmers are positive, independent people, and that’s part of the problem,” he related. “They have not been asking for help. They try to get through it themselves. In the long run, they’d be better off talking to FEMA and see what money is available to help them out. There might be legislation to help out, too.”
While Darling indicated that he does not intend to try to salvage any of his corn for feed, which his son Keith Darling could use to feed a herd of dairy cattle on the same property, Greig and O’Neill share concerns that contaminated produce may be sent to market or serendipitously used for feed for livestock, which can also be dangerous and pass potential contaminants down the food chain.
“Dairy farmers grow their own feed,” O’Neill said of the temptation to harvest crops that weren’t knocked flat by rushing waters. “If they don’t have enough crop to feed their own animals, they will have to go out and pay more for it.”
“All of that corn is going to have to be destroyed, which is going to cause a shortage in cow feed,” Greig concurred. “We are recommending that they test the forages before they use them.”
Unlike previous disasters, the back-to-back hits by Hurricane Irene, which impacted more growers in eastern Pennsylvania counties, and Lee, which seemed to target the Susquehanna watershed, created a myriad of situations that makes a blanket analysis of the damage nearly impossible. In Bradford County, the flash-flooding of tributaries that preceded the rapid rise of the river took away with it tons of valuable topsoil. For growers in upper Susquehanna County, there was relatively little creek-related damage as compared to flooding experienced there in 2006.
David DeLeon, who operates Kaisers Farm in Lanesboro near the town of Susquehanna, contributes much of the loss of his sweet corn and vine crops to record river levels there. He had already lost a substantial amount of corn to wind damage caused by Hurricane Irene. “Some of the corn was ready to be picked and had a lot of weight on the top,” DeLeon explained, noting that it does not take much wind at that point “to drop those stalks to the ground.”
“I don’t see any way of recovering losses,” he stated, noting that he and his family have shifted their focus to brokering produce—purchasing from non-affected farms and bringing the food to market. Nonetheless, it’s a tough way to wrap up a rough year that included late plantings due to late frosts and an unusually wet spring.
“This has been a difficult year for growers overall,” said O’Neill. “Spring rain put off planting. Then, we went from wet to almost drought conditions. We’ve been soaked ever since Irene, which is bad for vegetable growers and orchard owners.” Whether or not the ground was overrun by floodwaters, he added, the excessive moisture is causing apples, pears, grapes, and other fruits and vegetables to split or rot before they can be picked.
One of the more unique situations faced by some dairy farmers in the region was a byproduct of the isolation they faced by high water and compromised roads and bridges. Stephen and Tina Henning in Mehoopany were among dairy farmers who had to dump milk because they could not get it to market soon enough. Stephen estimates that they were forced to discard nearly 6,000 pounds of milk, which they hadn’t had to do since a bad blizzard a few years ago. The Hennings were grateful, however, that some levee protection put in place after the 1972 flood saved the majority of their feed crop.
Whether or not they believe that they need help, O’Neill and Greig encourage growers who experienced any loss to register with FEMA and the Federal Farm Service Agency (FSA). Only by working as a team, Greig related, can the state properly evaluate the impact of severe weather on this year’s crops.
“We can get the information out there, but we can’t call for them,” he added.
“We are telling farmers to document and take photos of damages before they conduct any cleanup or disposal,” said O’Neill.
In some cases, O’Neill cautioned, growers might have to wait for an FSA agent to visit their farms.
The facts gleaned from proper reporting of losses can lead to both monetary assistance and action by authorities to address erosion and other streambed issues, both of which are high on Bradford County commissioner Mark Smith’s to-do list. He and Bradford County public safety director Robert Barnes took to the air in a Guthrie helicopter as the floodwaters began to recede.
“One of the things that we took specific note of was the damage to agricultural properties,” Smith stated. “It was obvious that we need a long-term solution on managing creeks in our county and across the Northern Tier.” Smith said that he and fellow commissioners have indicated to both the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and PennDOT that the agencies bear some of the responsibility for unprecedented devastation in some areas that could have been prevented by routine dredging of problem streams and keeping debris cleaned out around bridges.
The majority of the growers interviewed for this story had no time for the rhetoric of agency leaders or public officials. They view the wrath of Mother Nature as an unstoppable phenomenon that, while especially unique this time around, will not stand in the way of their eventual recovery.
“There’s always next year,” said Roy Darling.
To report loss of personal property and crop damage, growers may call 800-621-FEMA or visit their county’s disaster recovery center. Additional information is available online at www.PEMA.state.pa.us.