Guest columnists Phil Korman, Claire Morenon, and Margaret Christie: Farms, floods, and climate change

By CLAIRE MORENON, MARGARET CHRISTIE and PHIL KORMAN

Published: 07-24-2023 8:10 PM

On July 10, heavy rains led to widespread flooding alongside small rivers and creeks throughout our region. The next day, the Connecticut River overflowed its banks to levels not seen since Hurricane Irene in 2011.

This flooding event was fast in some ways — the fields at Natural Roots Farm in Conway, along the South River, filled with water as farmers and their draft horses worked to save their deluged chickens and equipment. And it was slow in others, as farmers watched and waited over 24 hours to see how high the Connecticut River would rise.

Heavy rain has continued to fall, making some fields that didn’t flood too wet to access for farmwork and increasing the likelihood of plant diseases that thrive in wet conditions.

Flooding is catastrophic for farms in many ways, and the timing of this flood is especially damaging. Floodwaters sweep away plants, livestock, equipment and topsoil. Plants that survive generally can’t be harvested and eaten, because floodwater is often contaminated with road runoff, sewage overflow, and other contaminants. Any edible part of a plant that contacts flood water or flooded soil can’t be sold or donated.

A flood in early July has huge financial implications for the farms that were flooded: They have devoted immense time and money to growing and maintaining crops which are now unsalable, and they may not be able to plant and harvest new crops before the growing season is over.

Flooding impacted farms of all kinds: small start-ups, some of them operated by immigrant and refugee farmers; long-standing, diverse vegetable operations that sell directly to consumers through farm stands and CSAs; and large wholesale operations that supply supermarkets and corner stores across the state. Farms of all sizes donate produce, too, so food pantries and food banks are also impacted.

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The response to this disaster has been swift. Farmers have donated produce and young plants to flooded farms. Community members have contributed generously, and volunteers have turned out to help clean up mud and debris. State and federal elected leaders came to see the damage and hear directly from farmers. Local legislators, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, UMass Cooperative Extension, and nonprofits that focus on food and farms worked quickly and cooperatively to tally losses, address immediate needs, and plan for a more comprehensive response to this and future climate-related disasters.

On Thursday, Gov. Maura Healey, in her second western Mass. visit in three days, announced the launch of the Massachusetts Farm Resiliency Fund, a public/private initiative that offers a place to donate, a source of grants for impacted farms statewide, and the beginnings of a safety net for future climate change events. In addition, advocates are hopeful that state legislators will include a farm disaster fund in their supplemental budget.

Farmers are resilient and adaptable. Farming has always been a weather-dependent, narrow-margin occupation. But the weather extremes of our changing climate are bigger and more damaging than the everyday unpredictability of New England weather.

This flood is the third weather event this year to bring widespread losses to local farms: Peach buds were killed in February in a weekend cold snap during an otherwise warm winter, and a late frost in May greatly reduced blueberry and apple harvests. These events match climate change predictions for our region, which include wild temperature fluctuations, increased precipitation, and higher summer temperatures.

Local farmers have already begun to adjust their growing practices to increase resilience in the face of these changes. But to survive, they need more help. This must include more funding for research into climate-adapted farming practices, more financial support for farmers in making those changes, and a more robust emergency response system.

Climate change will make extreme weather events more frequent. Recent flooding and freezes show the devastation these events can cause — and the response that’s possible. Farms saw an outpouring of community support, and Massachusetts has begun to build the capacity for the larger response that will get us through this disaster and the ones to come.

Right now, funds are desperately needed. Go to buylocalfood.org to donate to the new Massachusetts Farm Resiliency Fund, individual farm fundraisers, and CISA’s Emergency Farm Fund, which provides no-interest farm loans. And don’t forget that using your grocery dollars to buy local food offers a two-part benefit: investing in local farms while enjoying summer’s bounty.

Claire Morenon is communications manager, Margaret Christie special projects manager and Philip Korman executive director of CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).

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