Floods inspire talks in Conway, Deerfield on prepping farmers for changing climate

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 08-02-2023 6:18 PM

CONWAY — As farms around the region determine their plans going forward following unprecedented rainstorms, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey and several other state and federal partners emphasized the opportunity in this moment to prepare farmers for a changing climate.

In a visit to Natural Roots farm in Conway, which was devastated by the initial July 10 flooding of the South River, alongside subsequent storms on July 16 and 21, Markey met with the farm’s owners and workers, as well as other area farmers to discuss what comes next for an industry reeling from relentless rain.

“This is the moment — either pull all the resources and all the people together and make the changes that we need to change,” Natural Roots founder David Fisher told the group gathered at his flooded fields on Wednesday, “or we miss our chance.”

As a result of the flooding, Natural Roots, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, has lost 95% of its annual crop, meaning its more than 200 families will receive little produce, if any, this season.

Fisher attributed the flooding to climate change, which Markey agreed with, noting that much of the focus on climate change in Massachusetts is focused on the Boston Harbor’s rapidly warming waters, which can “supercharge” storms. However, the spotlight also needs to be put on those producing food for the state.

“What people don’t understand are the 22,000 Massachusetts citizens engaged in farming and the impact climate change is having on them,” Markey said, “and the very real and, potentially, existential threat it poses to their way of life.”

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While not related to the July flooding, Meredith Wecker, a farmer at Heath’s The Benson Place blueberry farm, said a May frost event killed 99% of their products.

“How does government in New England support small farmers that don’t have the same kinds of margins of farmers out West and the Midwest?” Wecker said. “You can’t point to one event and say, ‘This is climate change.’”

Wecker mentioned the “scale” of these weather events is different, while Markey noted these extreme instances are not just examples of global warming, but “global weirding.”

“We can’t just pretend that it doesn’t trickle down into real-life consequences for the farmers of western Massachusetts,” he added.

Speaking to a host of government representatives, Markey said it’s going to take an all-hands-on-deck effort to support farmers who have lost their main source of income, as well as residents who rely on farmers for their food.

“It’s going to take a village to help the people who live in the village,” Markey said. “We want to be here the whole way to make sure you can maximize all of the federal and state benefits that are available to get you back on your feet.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture this week officially declared Franklin and Hampshire counties as disaster areas due to flooding between July 9 and July 16, and has opened up several avenues to help farmers recover.

On the state level, the Legislature approved a $200 million supplemental budget Monday that includes $20 million in relief funding for farmers.

While the continuous support is appreciated, Fisher said government policies may need to be shifted to better support farmers. He recalled a trip to Switzerland, where evidence of the government’s support of farms was visible.

“It was extremely clear there was some relationship between the government and the farms that made for an incredibly vibrant agricultural economy,” Fisher said. “They do direct payments to farmers based on a percentage of gross revenue every year. I don’t know if that’s an answer to our problems, but the message there is that the government is adamant they want to keep those farmers in business.”

In a time like this, Markey said re-examining the government’s partnerships could be a winning strategy, but every day that passes is another day the climate threat grows.

“We have to reconceptualize the federal government because the vulnerability to the farming community is going to grow, as each week, month and year go by,” Markey said. “The planet is running a fever and there are no emergency rooms for planets, so we have to make sure you get the assistance, which you need in order to take care of yourself.”

Infrastructure discussions

In Conway, a brief discussion was held about the nearly $2.2 million in damages the town’s roads experienced. Markey also made a trip to the intersection of Pine Nook and County roads in Deerfield to speak with town officials about the estimated $4 million in damages that Deerfield sustained in July.

Conway Selectboard Chair Philip Kantor emphasized the damages to roads throughout the community — with a price tag nearly equal to one-third of the annual town budget — is unprecedented and the town will need help to avoid financial devastation.

“The amount of damage ... we have suffered is historic and unmanageable by us,” Kantor said. “We all need help and we’re hoping that your visit will unlock some of that.”

Recapping the damages in Deerfield, Selectboard Chair Carolyn Shores Ness said officials are estimating an initial $4 million price tag in immediate repairs to roads around town. As of Wednesday afternoon, Pine Nook, Lower and Hoosac roads remain closed due to washouts.

Estimates to stabilize the roads are currently set at $400,000 to $600,000 for Lower Road; $500,000 for Hoosac Road; and $800,000 to $1 million for Pine Nook Road. Other damaged areas in Deerfield include two areas on River Road, Hawks Road and several other washouts.

To help ease the strain on the town, Shores Ness said she has been working with other regional agencies, including the Northeast Association of Conservation Districts, to rally federal funding for New England. One avenue she’d like them to explore is the USDA’s Emergency Watershed Program (EWP), which supplies federal resources to communities after natural disasters.

“We’re hoping that Markey will be leading the charge on that with Bernie Sanders,” Shores Ness said.

She is also hopeful the state can chip in some resources.

“We’re going to cope as best we can,” Shores Ness added. “We need the state Legislature, just like they stepped up for the farmers, they need to step up for the municipalities and give us a few million dollars, at least to get us through the stabilization part.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.

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