October 11, 2011

Farmers Feel Lingering Effects of Hurricane Irene

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When hurricane Irene hit the Northeast in August, torrential rains imposed severe damage on certain crops important to local farmers. Though the Ithaca Farmers Market still boasts an array of produce this fall, many popular autumn crops such as pumpkins and winter squash will be in lower supply this season.

“This year was the worst season I’ve seen since I began farming in Ithaca, in 1997,” remarked farmer Trever Sherman, of Ithaca Organics.

According to several farmers, the entire growing season proved difficult due to extreme weather. “The season as a grower was tough,” said Prof. Stephen Reiners, horticulture. “It was hot and dry. Pumpkin crops were planted late this year. Then Hurricane Irene came and it was the flooding that really hurt the crop –– floated them away in some cases. Then it didn’t rain for five to six weeks, and then the fall came and now we got the rain. I’ve never seen a year with such extremes,” he explained.

Reiners, along with Cornell Cooperative Extension, helps farmers deal with the loss and problems caused by Irene. Not only were pumpkins floated up into treelines, but pathogens carried by flood waters contaminated crops.

According to Reiners, location determined the extent of hurricane damage experienced. “Ithaca was right there in the middle, some [farmers] did okay, some didn’t. The eastern part of Ithaca and upstate New York were hit very hard.”

According to the Sept. 8 issue of the Fruit and Vegetable Update, produced by Cornell Cooperative Extension, Phytophthora blight was more severe this year than in the past on commercial pumpkin crops in the Northeast. Phytophthora is a fungus that attacks peppers and cucurbits (such as winter squash and pumpkins) and can be transmitted through flood water.

In response to this problem of contamination faced by farmers across the Northeast, the University of Vermont compiled resources to provide to those plagued by the natural disaster. The papers explain the parameters of the Food and Drug Administration’s regulations about produce contaminated by flood water. These resources were passed on to Cornell and sent to farmers in the area.

One report, compiled by Ginger Nickerson of the UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture, states: “As painful as it may be to do, all crops with edible portions that have come in contact with flood waters should be destroyed or discarded. Flood waters are likely to contain contaminants. Microbial pathogens that could be in flood waters include bacteria, viruses and parasites.”

The FDA has restricted any produce in contact with these waters to be sold for consumption. This includes root crops, such as potatoes, which, according to the report, can absorb contaminants through its lenticels (cells in the skin that allow for gas exchange). The FDA has also prohibited farmers from feeding potentially contaminated crops to livestock.

On September 8, a meeting was held at the Emergency Service Center in Goshen, NY. Among those present included farmers affected by the hurricane and flooding, the Farm Services agency, Soil and Water Conservation districts, Crop Insurance representatives and Cornell University.

“We are dealt a severe blow by Hurricane Irene,” said Orange County, NY legislator Michael Pillmeier at the post-Irene farmers meeting. “I know each one of you is drained emotionally, physically and financially by the hurricane and the waters that don’t seem to be receding … as always, we will get through this together,” he said.

In response to the immense damage, New York state money is being delegated to help farmers with repairs.

“We could spend a whole five million on just ditching and land leveling alone. We have to look at all of the work on a farm and decide which components are most important in getting the farm back to being able to function,” stated Kevin Sumner, of the Orange County water conservation district, at the meeting on Sept. 8.

Some farmers are dealing with a tough year financially, and some will be very profitable. As Reiners explained, farmers know to diversify what they grow to minimize the impact of the loss of a crop. “If you have pumpkins this year, you will do very well- demand will be up, along with prices. [In response to the demand] farmers in western NY are sending [pumpkins] east.”

“The loss is a part of farming. I hope to do better next year,” stated Sherman.

Even with all of the devastation, Reiners believes there will still be much to see and do in upstate New York this season. “There will be pumpkins for sure –– in this area, there may be some farms that didn’t have a problem. The last thing I want to see is people thinking that there isn’t anything available. There is stuff out there. Go out this fall and support local farmers!” he said.

Original Author: Paige Roosa