Connecticut Valley Farms Reeling from Irene’s Flooding

By STEPHEN SINGER | September 5, 2011

Floodwaters triggered when Tropical Storm Irene tore through the East Coast nearly a week ago have inundated farmland in the Connecticut River Valley, ruining crops in Connecticut and Massachusetts just before harvest and washing away valuable topsoil.

In Rocky Hill, more than half of the 450-acre Fair Weather Acres farm were under 8 to 10 feet of water, destroying the snap bean and string bean crops. The Connecticut River, which crested Wednesday, has ruined owner Bill Collins’ beans, which are unable to survive more than 10 hours in water.

When the water recedes, nearly 1.5 million pounds of beans valued at about $700,000 or more will be gone, he said.

“Just dead plants, nothing salvageable,” Collins said. “We’re in pretty serious financial trouble.”

In Deerfield, Mass., town administrator Bernard Kubiak said topsoil was washed away by Deerfield River flooding and replaced by sand, grit and gravel brought down in the river’s violent currents and tossed over the river banks. It has been a huge hit to the town, which has relied on agriculture as a mainstay since the 17th century.

“It’s a year’s worth of work wiped out,” Kubiak said. “It makes you want to cry.”

Jaap Molenaar, owner of Pioneer Gardens in Deerfield, said he laid off two field workers and may have to let go of another two, a tough move when unemployment in Massachusetts was 7.6 percent in July.

Molenaar said flooding has destroyed 2 acres of ornamental crops such as day lilies. About 18 to 20 acres are covered by as much as 12 inches of silt and mud, he said.

Irene took a toll on agriculture along all the Eastern Seaboard. Farmers in North Carolina and Virginia lost tobacco crops and blueberry growers in New Jersey worry that damaged bushes could spell trouble for future harvests.

Agriculture officials in Connecticut and Massachusetts are still assessing damage, but initial reports indicate that apple growers were pleasantly surprised that their orchards largely survived. Connecticut reported some damage to farm buildings.

The flooding is a particularly hard blow coming just six months after back-to-back snowstorms destroyed farm buildings and killed livestock across the Northeast.

Nathan L’Etoile, assistant commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, said Franklin and Hampshire counties and parts of Berkshire County were hit very hard by Irene, but the rest of the state “dodged a bullet.”

A potato farm in Hatfield lost 300 acres to flooding and a Deerfield farm lost 50 acres used to grow vegetables, he said. In Hawley, dairy farm owners had to dump milk because trucks could not reach the farm, L’Etoile said.

Massachusetts officials are working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to calculate damage to determine if Gov. Deval Patrick will seek a federal disaster declaration for affected counties, he said.

Lori Carver, county executive director for the Franklin County Farm Service Agency in Greenfield, Mass., said early estimates show that 1,500 acres used to raise dairy, livestock, potatoes, sod and sweet corn are affected in Franklin County alone.

Back in Rocky Hill, Fair Weather Acres farm has scheduled its second annual corn maze, hay rides and other fall activities a week early to Sept. 10 to try to make up for the financial loss, which Michele Collins, Bill Collins’ wife, said has dashed a season of work.

“Everything’s already grown,” she said. “You’re at the point where you’ve put all your investment in it.”

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