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Flooded Schoharie County farms getting back on their feet

Sunday, July 22, 2012
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Schoharie County Farms Carrot Barn family member, Jolyn Borst and her son Benjamin,move fresh corn into place. Farmers are recovering from flood damage, and their crops are coming along.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
Schoharie County Farms Carrot Barn family member, Jolyn Borst and her son Benjamin,move fresh corn into place. Farmers are recovering from flood damage, and their crops are coming along.

— At the Carrot Barn in Schoharie, the shelves are filled with fresh produce and the greenhouse and fields are teeming with plant life. Customers file through, filling their carts with vegetables and other treats, such as carrot cookies and cupcakes.

“We’ve got a great crop of garlic,” said Richard Ball, owner of the Carrot Barn, during a tour of his property. “Our tomato crop is looking really amazing.”

It was a far different scene last fall in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, which caused severe flooding beginning Aug. 29.

The Carrot Barn, which serves as the retail arm of Schoharie Valley Farms, reopened the day after the flood but to a vastly diminished local customer base, as many residents were forced to flee their homes. The greenhouse was soon filled with clothes and bedding for flood victims.

Especially devastating was the damage to the farm’s crops and fields along the Schoharie Creek. Ball estimated that the deluge, which covered his farmland with between 8 and 18 feet of water, destroyed 90 percent of his potatoes, carrots and corn, causing damage running to six figures.

“The day after the flood, we were able to offer people a glass of water and something to eat,” Ball said.

The flood hit local farmers at a particularly bad time: late summer, when many of their crops are just about ready to be picked. Farmers typically borrow money in the spring with the expectation that they’ll be able to pay off their debts in the fall, when their investment yields a bountiful harvest.

Though farmers hard hit by the flood are back to farming, they expect that it will take several years to fully recover from the storm.

“We only harvested 30 percent of our crop last year,” said Becky Shaul, of the 300-year-old Shaul Farms in Fultonham.

Her husband, David, echoed this. “The flood hit just before harvest,” he said. “The busiest months at our road stand are September and October. The timing was really difficult.”

Shaul Farms works 1,300 acres of corn and 200 acres of fresh vegetables along the Schoharie Creek and operates a farm stand on Route 30. Last fall, this land was covered by up to 20 feet of water, but for the most part, things are back to normal.

“We’ve gotten everything in,” said Becky Shaul. “We spent a huge amount of hours fixing dikes and fields and clearing up debris.”

Of bigger concern at the moment is the ongoing drought, which Shaul described as a “double whammy.”

“We’re getting clobbered again,” she said. “We’ve gone from having too much water to not enough. Given what happened last year, we need this year to be reasonable. Irene hurt us all.”

Thomas Della Rocco, executive director of the Farm Service Agency office in Schoharie County, said that the vast majority of Schoharie County’s 500 farmers were hurt by the flood, even if their property wasn’t flooded.

He said that farms on hills lost crops because of the heavy rains or streams jumping their banks, and many of the farmers who grow hay were unable to do a second cutting. Some farmers had to purchase corn silage to feed their dairy and beef cows as a result of last year’s poor crop yield.

“A lot of farmers had to extend their debt to make up for their losses,” he said.

“Farmers have done an admirable job of putting their fields back in good condition,” Della Rocco said. “Crops were planted in a timely manner, and they’re doing well.”

But he added, “The drought is on everybody’s minds now.”

Geoff Palmer, a spokesman for the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, said that the flooding damaged approximately 200,000 acres of crops and resulted in losses of about $73 million statewide.

Barber’s Farm, which grows 200 acres of mixed vegetables, lost all of its late summer and fall crops to Irene.

“That’s 50 percent of our income,” said Jacob Hooper, one of the farm’s partners. “A few of our fields suffered pretty substantial erosion and deposition of gravel and sand. There was a fair amount of debris.”

Six feet of water flooded the farm’s six greenhouses and two storage barns, necessitating repairs and the purchase of new equipment, such as a new electrical system. Two items still need to be replaced: an ice machine and a walk-in freezer.

Hooper said Barber’s Farm, about 31⁄2 miles south of Middleburgh, had a good greenhouse season and managed to get this year’s crops planted on time. The farm is irrigated, and although the drought has created some extra work, “our crops are looking good. If we can stay on top of the game, we’ll have a nice late summer and fall harvest,” Hooper said.

“If readers are really curious about how the valley is doing and how the farms are doing, they should hop in their cars and come visit us,” Hooper said. “Our community is determined, and things are looking good.”

Barber’s Farm runs a seven-day-a-week farm stand on Route 30.

Anne Mattice-Strauch and her husband farm 20 acres at Mattice River Bank Farm in North Blenheim. Mattice-Strauch’s father farmed there until 2005, when he retired. Mattice-Strauch and her husband started farming there last year, renting out some of the property to a neighboring farmer.

Mattice-Strauch said her crops were unaffected by Irene, but some fields on the farm property were destroyed. The fields have been mostly cleared, but “there was a lot of debris and material — logs, tires, a refrigerator, a toilet,” she said. “Getting all of the rocks out of the fields is going to take a while.”

The state rebuilt a washed-out road on the property that had been used for farm stand parking, and the Schoharie Creek is closer to their property now.

The mild winter helped farmers recover faster by allowing them to work through January and February.

“There was a lot of extra time that we didn’t have to spend in the snow,” Hooper said.

“We were pretty much cleaned up by January,” Ball said.

Schoharie Valley Farms operates year-round, using its greenhouse to grow and harvest greens such as chard during the winter. One of its earliest crops is spinach, which gets picked toward the end of April, followed by asparagus in May and crops such as strawberries and summer squash in June. Right now, cabbages and radishes are being picked.

Ball wasn’t expecting Irene to be as severe as it was.

“Aug. 28 was the last day we harvested,” he recalled. “We ran around that morning and picked odds and ends. We were thinking that maybe we would have a wind event.”

Ball said he received a lot of support from the state’s agriculture community, with farmers who emerged from the storm relatively unscathed selling Schoharie Valley Farms produce so that he could keep his business going.

“They said, ‘Pay us when you can,’ ” he said. “But clearly it was a significant financial loss.

“It’s been heartening, the number of people from outside the immediate area who came to volunteer, who looked for me personally,” Ball said. “There were so many volunteers from the Capital District who came here and discovered the Schoharie Valley for the first time. It’s heartening to have gained so many friends.”

 
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