The following is a brief and very preliminary summary of the impact of significant and sustained rain on farms in the Commonwealth’s four western counties during the week of July 9, 2023. We will continue to update – especially – the number of farms affected, acreage, and estimated damage.
The Connecticut and Deerfield Rivers, as well as their tributaries like the Mill, Green, and Millers Rivers, all overflowed their banks. At present, the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture Resources has communicated with at least 50 farms about damage sustained to their operations, with many more expected to report in the coming days.
As of 7/12, it is estimated that well over 1,000 acres have been affected. Much more remains inaccessible due to standing water and so unable to be assessed at this time. The total economic damage is still unknown as the magnitude is both great and countless acres remain submerged under significant water.
The kinds of farms affected include high-production produce and livestock feed farms, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Farms, micro-businesses and start-up farms, community gardens (some dedicated to immigrant and refugee farmers), sod and flower farms – and more. MDAR and MEMA are both aggressively assessing the farm and related municipal damage. Rain continues and is expected to last through the weekend.
There are short-term and longer-term farm impacts. An initial list follows:
- Crop loss: Crops growing in fields that flooded will need to be destroyed in order to protect public health, as they are considered adulterated under federal food safety standards. The timing of this is particularly challenging for farmers, because some crops were nearly ready for harvest and so significant time and resources have already been invested in those plants. At the same time, it is too late in the season for those fields to be replanted to produce a crop this year.
- Fungus and mold: The excessive heat and rain dominating the weather pattern this year are difficult at any time for farmers. The flooding exacerbates the potential for fungus, mold, and other bacteria that can damage crops in fields beyond those that have been flooded (as many types of mold spores are able to become airborne). Insect pressure on crops is also heightened. We do not fully know the impact on soil health at this time, but other weather events like this have, historically, resulted in years of damage and hardship due to mold and bacteria lingering in the soil.
- Acute demand for technical expertise: MDAR’s staff fanned out across the region to help farmers assess the damage as well as help them understand the next steps for their farms. Given the devastation, the demand for timely help is high.
- Multiple climatic disasters: Farmers in the region diversify their crops to guard against the impact of losses. In February and May the Commonwealth had two frost incidents that will mean a loss of berries, peaches (stone fruits), pears, and most apples this year.
- Long-term loss of farmland: Past disasters have resulted in farmers selling land for development in order to cover losses, reducing forever the amount of farmland available.
- Exiting from markets makes it harder to return: Farmers who sell into wholesale markets may need to withdraw from sales agreements with national and international buyers because they cannot meet demand. They will be vulnerable to losing these markets permanently.
- Crop rotation: To avoid common soil and production problems farmers rotate the types of crops they grow both within the land that they own/rent and externally, through swapping with neighbors. Farmers whose fields are flooded will not be able to trade with neighbors given concerns regarding mold, bacteria, the loss of topsoil, and more.
- Structural damage: Water rose as high as six feet in some areas and moved rapidly. We are hearing reports of barns and drying and wash houses collapsing/being washed away, as well as other structures affected.
- Livestock: Farmers who raise livestock (pigs, cows, sheep, goats, chickens) often grow their own feed (hay and corn, primarily). Both feed quality and the presence of mycotoxins from mold development are real concerns. Buying feed is possible but financially perilous.
- Impact on food security: Many of the impacted farms donate produce in large quantities to The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and to local meal sites, pantries, and elder feeding programs in the four western counties. Because of the high price of food, these sites have already seen a decrease in available produce and what is called, salvage (donated or low-price shelf-stable food), threatening food security for vulnerable families.