Mar 19, 2012
New York farm still recovering from Hurricane Irene

On Aug. 28, 2011, Hurricane Irene hit Schoharie Valley Farms.

Richard Ball, the farm’s owner, talked about the hurricane and its aftermath in January, during The 2012 Empire State Fruit & Vegetable Expo in Syracuse, N.Y.

Ball’s grows about 200 acres of vegetables and small fruit in New York state’s Schoharie Valley, which is about 40 miles southwest of Albany, the state capital. As August was drawing to a close last year, Ball and millions of others were tracking Hurricane Irene as it moved up the East Coast. New York City was preparing for a direct hit, while Ball and others in his area expected “quite a wind event,” he said.

“We thought maybe we’d batten down the hatches, maybe get wet for a few days,” he said. “We weren’t expecting what happened.”

When Ball woke up on the morning of Aug. 28, a Sunday, it wasn’t raining much in his immediate area. The area just south of him, however, had gotten 7 or 8 inches of rain by 7 a.m. The storm appeared to be heading his way.

“I began to be concerned.”

If Irene hit the Schoharie Valley, the resulting floods could be as bad as they were in 1996, the year of record floods, Ball thought. It was a serious situation, but he wasn’t panicking.

Turns out, the valley got a direct hit from Irene – and the flooding was much worse than 1996. Thousands of people were evacuated, communications were down – there were even concerns about a dam failing, Ball said.

The Schoharie Recovery website described the unprecedented nature of the disaster: “Powerful flood waters in the Schoharie Valley covered a substantially greater area than the established flood plain and reached areas that had never been touched during the more than 300 years of western settlement in the area.”

It went on: “In the village of Schoharie, it is estimated that between 75 and 85 percent of all homes and essentially 100 percent of local business locations have experienced major damage, as well as nearly every public building.”

The floodwaters covered 43,000 acres of farmland in the Schoharie Valley, much of it grain and silage corn, hay and other forage crops, Ball said.

Ball’s farm wasn’t hit as bad as other parts of the valley. The farm’s infrastructure – homes, greenhouses and other buildings – was elevated enough to avoid the floodwaters. The power came back quickly. They had crops in storage, too, and were able to do business by the next day, he said.

“We were fortunate.”

The farm’s fields, however, weren’t so fortunate. The floodwaters covered the crops that were still in the ground, including the potatoes and carrots. Ball didn’t harvest another crop for the rest of the year. He estimated his farm lost more than $100,000 in potential sales.

Food safety

The flooding left a lot of debris in the fields that had to be cleaned up when the water receded. It took weeks for the water to drain, however, and about 10 days after Irene, Tropical Storm Lee hit the valley. There was significant rainfall and some flooding, but it wasn’t as bad as Irene. Ball referred to it as a “rinse cycle.”

The flooding and debris left some legitimate food safety concerns. When the fields finally dried up, about three weeks later, researchers from Cornell University came out and tested the fields. They swabbed the soil surface and took core samples, looking for contaminants like gas and oil, sewage and heavy metals, Ball said.

Three weeks after the flood the Cornell team found a “prevalence of fecal indicators,” such as e. coli, on the farm. Six weeks after the flood there was still some contamination, but it wasn’t as bad, said Peter Bergholz, a food safety microbiologist at Cornell.

E. coli can persist for months, Bergholz said. He expected to do more testing in the spring, when he anticipated the problem to be “substantially reduced.” It’s impossible to predict the future, of course, but he said there most likely wouldn’t be a food safety problem by the next harvest.

Ball did his own testing. He said gas and oil weren’t found in the fields. They float on top of water, and must have been chased away by the billions of gallons of floodwater.

There were some problems with soil compaction and gravel deposits, but Ball and others cleaned up the debris in the fields, disked them and planted rye before it got cold.

“Generally speaking, things were pretty good,” he said. “We’re feeling confident that our farmland stood up pretty well.”

Recovering economically, however, will be a bigger challenge – for Ball’s farm, other farms, local homes and businesses. It will be years before the valley is fully recovered, he said.

The flooding also raised “a million” insurance issues. In general, vegetables and small fruit aren’t covered adequately by crop insurance programs, which are designed for commodity crops. Probably 85 percent of the crop losses in the valley weren’t covered by insurance, Ball estimated.

Some farms might go out of business because of the damage, but most will be back. It’s a close-knit community, and people have been helping each other to recover, he said.
“Farmers are a resilient bunch,” Ball said. “We’re used to taking a beating now and then.”

By Matt Milkovich, Managing Editor

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