Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee caused massive flooding last fall, wiping out some farmer's crops
entirely, seriously damaging the harvest for others. At the time, it looked as if some farms might not make it. We follow up with some of the affected growers to see how they are faring this season.
After a positively Biblical finale to the summer, we were graced with an extraordinarily mild winter and a stunningly beautiful spring (though drought begins to loom into view as this year’s possible plague). With weather thus on my mind, now that the new growing season has begun I checked in with some of the farmers and officials I spoke with last summer (see the September 2011 issue) in the aftermath of the floods to see how their recovery is proceeding. In general, their moods are positive, and they all speak warmly about the generous and essential help they received from their neighbors, customers, and CSA members throughout the fall and winter. The State of New York also gets widespread plaudits for its prompt, effective, and ongoing response to the disaster.
Ulster County Executive Mike Hein has been working earnestly on recovery since the storms. “It was the worst disaster in [the county’s] history, but it brought out the best in people. We’ve never seen a faster declaration and response at the state level.” This help is much needed, and will make a big difference to communities impacted by the storms, but it is not sufficient to address the underlying problem of continued vulnerability to flooding in many communities. Hein has been waging a very public struggle against the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, referring to their attitude toward the communities that reside downstream from the Ashokan Reservoir (owned by New York City) as akin to “an occupying nation.” After the storms, the reservoir released billions of gallons of water so turbid that it exceeded the criteria for pollution. “Their priorities are entirely focused on providing cheap water to the city," says Hein. “They don’t care what the cost might be up here.”
Damage to the region was of two different types; in the higher elevations raging water savagely eroded roads and stream banks, taking more than a few bridges, houses, and vehicles with them. Hein recalls taking Senator Schumer to visit a spot on Route 47 south of Oliverea where what had been a culvert under a country road became a yawning chasm 35’ deep and 50’ across. Farther downstream, where most of the farms are, high water inundated thousands of acres of fields, destroying crops at the exact point in the season where farmers begin recouping all the money they invest in seeds, labor, and fuel. Scenes from the bottomland were less graphic—vast expanses of placid water hid all the produce they drowned—but just as devastating economically. Now the infrastructure is largely back; roads and bridges have been repaired so agriculture and tourism (two major sectors of the State’s economy) can function normally in time for the new growing season.
Chris Kelder, of Kelder’s Farm in Accord, is upbeat: “We took a big financial hit, but we’re optimistic. In farming, there are good years and bad years.” And the weird weather has had an upside: “The dryer winter allowed us to get our ditches and irrigation system repaired before planting.” Pete Taliaferro of the eponymous farm in New Paltz is sanguine: “The hardest part was losing both the investment and the profit on it. We got some recovery money and grants, but there’s much less in the coffers than there should be, and I’m worried about payroll later on. The CSA has really helped; I get paid up front and pay them back in vegetables with no interest. People have been so generous; we received over $20,000 in donations.” The mild winter was a curse for him, though: “Normally I make thirteen to sixteen thousand from snow plowing. This year I made a fraction of that.”
Deborah Kavakos of Stoneledge Farm in Cairo also feels the pinch. “We used our savings to make repairs. We did $40,000 worth of creek bank repair [they have about a thousand feet of frontage]. Ag and Markets gave us $12,500. We were glad to get it, but it wasn’t anywhere near enough. The irony is that we applied for a permit to dredge the creek, but it took two years to get it; it was approved one week before the storm. It’s so frustrating, and it’s a bigger problem than that, because the whole waterway needs to be managed.” Even if the Kavakos’ keep their stretch of creek clear, it only takes one neighbor downstream neglecting it to cause another flood when high water backs up behind obstacles.
This brings us to the two issues that kept coming up in these conversations, both of which require Federal action to accomplish. The first issue is that our farmers remain unjustly vulnerable to the next natural disaster. Crop insurance programs are currently configured to favor huge row crop monoculture operations in the Midwest, not the smaller and more diverse vegetable farms in our region, most of which fall under the designation of “specialty crops,” as opposed to commodity crops like corn, soy, and wheat. The insurance is expensive to buy and the payout is often a pittance, when it arrives; Pete Taliaferro says that he received nine and a half cents on the dollar for his losses. Kavakos still hasn’t received her indemnity, and doesn’t know how much it will be.
The other major issue is waterway management. The flooding left massive erosion and stream bank and bed disruption in its wake. Trees, boulders, gravel banks, and other obstacles will become flood-exacerbating dams in the next torrential downpour. Some government money has helped; the USDA recently gave affected areas a total of $41 million, and the State recently allocated $50 million for flood relief, including flood control and dam repair projects. Normally, FEMA reimburses towns and cities for 75 percent of the cost of repairs to roads, bridges, and equipment lost or damaged in floods, and the State splits the remaining 25 percent evenly with the municipalities. But local budgets have been so overstretched by the bad economy and the disaster that the state is covering their 12.5 percent obligation, thanks to language that State Senator Bonacic wrote into recent budget legislation. Bonacic also secured money to buy out flood-damaged homes in Wawarsing and for flood prevention work in Ulster and Orange Counties. But $40-50 million is the estimated cost just to dredge the Wallkill and Rondout; New York State does not have that kind of money for just one project, so the Army Corps of Engineers would have to do it.
Matt Nelligan is Manager of Public Affairs at the New York Farm Bureau, a principal interface between individual farmers and the powers that be at various levels of government. “There’s a huge sense of urgency, and we’re very active in Albany and Washington. Our top priority is a catastrophic crop loss program. We think people are open to the idea; after all, a lot of Republicans come from agricultural states and everyone understands the importance of farming. There’s a big push to get crop insurance reform included in the Farm Bill. The State deserves a lot of credit for the response to the storms, but we need to keep working. So-called ‘hundred-year storms’ are now happening every few years.”
Mike Morosi, communications director for Congressman Maurice Hinchey, does not share Nelligan’s optimism that legislation to address these two priorities will be forthcoming any time soon. “There hasn’t been any movement on the Farm Bill. Since the Republicans became the majority in the House, there has been consistent gridlock, delay, and no willingness to compromise. In this case, it’s the farmers who get the short end of the stick.” On the subject of the Corps and dredging, Morosi explains that “there’s a huge backlog of work, but the budget that Republicans just passed in the House cuts Corps funding by $190 million compared to last year, which will only slow it down further.”
After much theater, late last year Congress allocated $1.7 billion to the Army Corps of Engineers for disaster aid. In 1983, the Corps did a study of the Wallkill River (which flooded severely last summer, ruining crops and property in three counties) that recommended dredging as part of a flood reduction program. Two years later, they did what is called “clearing and snagging:” removing trees, rocks, and other obstacles that can impede flow but without any digging. According to Chris Pawelski, an onion farmer in Goshen, “they described it as a ’20-year solution’ and like clockwork, 20 years later we started having floods. The $40 million for dredging the Walkill and Esopus “sounds like a lot of money, but it’s a fraction of what the damage from just one storm can be.” (The damage from Irene and Lee in Orange County alone will likely exceed one hundred million dollars, not including private insurance claims).
Pawelski is irate that his Congresswoman, Nan Hayworth, did nothing to try to get some of the Corps money for dredging the Wallkill and its tributaries, especially since she is in the majority party in the House. “It’s a huge failure on her part. Other districts around the country got similar projects funded. This river needs to be taken care of.” In the face of the earmarks ban, which House Republicans passed upon taking power, many members have been using “lettermarks” instead, writing to agencies to request funding and expediting of specific projects in their districts. Both of New York’s Senators and Congressmen Tonko, Gibson, and Hinchey have all gone on the record supporting disaster relief and crop insurance reform, but Hayworth voted against relief money. She was unable to respond to several requests for a comment.
Pawelski is over $300,000 in debt due to the floods, and recently tried to sell a 50-pound bag of onions on Ebay for $150,000 to draw attention to his plight. The bag did not sell—though it did get him some publicity—and he is selling onion seeds for $15 a bag. “We’re hoping to have a good year,” he concludes. “One more disaster will wipe us out.” The resilient and positive attitudes nearly across the board are remarkable, especially given the legislative gridlock on the most pressing issues. Kavakos concludes our conversation by emphasizing the positive: “We truly are so happy to be part of a CSA, and we have a beautiful farm with wonderful soil. I love being a farmer. If people go to farm markets and buy local, they can really make a difference.” Nelligan agrees. “Everyone is still recovering; people need to come buy produce. It helps the economy, which helps everything.”