The Risky Business of Farming
Abby Youngblood and Ed Yowell
A local farmer once said, “a farmer who can’t stand losing a crop once in a while is no kind of farmer… farming is a risky business.” Risk is indeed part of farming…frosts, blights, too little rain, too much rain, etc. Crop insurance and disaster assistance are fundamental parts of our nation’s “farm safety net,” intended to ensure the resilience of farms in the wake of disasters, like tropical storms Irene and Lee. In the 2008 Farm Bill, Title XII provides for crop insurance and farm disaster assistance at the originally budgeted rate of $21.9 billion.
Yet, despite storm losses due to Irene and Lee, for a variety of reasons, very few New York farmers will receive compensation through federal crop insurance and disaster assistance programs. Those who do receive assistance will not come anywhere close to recouping their losses. The storms and subsequent flooding have drawn attention to just how inadequate and poorly suited federal disaster assistance programs are for many New York farmers and the need to reform these programs in the next Farm Bill.
On some farms, hundreds of acres were under as much as ten feet of water after receiving up to nine inches of rain with Irene and another 8 ½ inches with Lee just days later. Rivers overflowed their banks and the crops submerged in the flood waters were declared unfit for human and animal consumption by the FDA. One farmer described how he had to visit his farm by canoe since the roads leading to the farm were no longer passable.
Not only because of flooding, but also because there was simply too much water in too short a period of time, farmers began to notice split tomatoes, rotting fruits and greens, and waterlogged roots. The saturated ground could not drain and plants with their roots sitting in water were weakened and in some cases killed. Dairy farms were also impacted. Many New York dairy farmers grow their own feed for their animals. After thousands of tons of animal feed were lost in the storm (harvested feed was washed away and corn crops were destroyed in the field), dairy farmers are finding themselves in the terrible position of having to go into hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to purchase costly feed for animals until next season when they can grow more. Overwhelmed by the extent of the damage and the cost of rebuilding and buying feed, a few dairies were forced to sell their cows and were out of business within days of the storm.
For many, the flooding that resulted from Irene and Lee is a once in a lifetime event, though one Orange County, New York farmer recalled the last flooding of this magnitude in 1955 when he was just ten. Many fear that weather extremes, floods and droughts, could become more common in the future. If their fears are real, our present farm safety net may not afford them much safety.