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Will Sustainable Farms Survive in Flood-Prone New York?

09/20/2011 01:02 pm ET | Updated Nov 20, 2011

Even without grokking the science of climate change, it's obvious that novel weather events have increased around the country and the world. Thanks to Hurricanes Irene and Lee, at summer's end, torrential rains swept the Northeast region, flooding the areas where New York's food comes from. In these upstate regions in Ulster, Sullivan, and Delaware counties, there's a new breed of organic and sustainable farming. But will those farmers, their farms, and their food survive changing weather patterns to continue to grow and supply the foods health and environmentally conscious people prefer to eat?

With his wife, Holly, Richard Giles typifies this new breed. He owns and runs Lucky Dog Farms, (in Hamden, New York). Sited near the West Branch of the Delaware River, the region of one of New York City's two watersheds, the farm supplies Swiss chard, kale, and other greens to downstate farmer's markets, restaurants, wholesalers, and the Park Slope Food Coop. As Irene approached, Giles and his farm staff were up before sunrise harvesting all they could. As the storm hit, they worked in fields in standing water up to their ankles, within two hours, the water had risen to their knees, and a half hour later they had to evacuate waters six feet high, that had yet to fully subside when I spoke with Giles ten days later. Lucky Dog lost nearly the entire Fall crop.

"When Irene happened, most of the group of farmers in our area were saying, "We just have to suck it up," Martin Stosiek
rt of Markristo Farms in Hillside, New York explained. "Then when Hurricane Lee happened, it was even worse." Some lost crops but with a whole lot of hard work will survive the coming winter. Some may not.

Stosiekrt who sells organic greens to restaurants, farmer's markets, and wholesalers downstate, detailed his losses: cabbage unsaleable, green beans sitting in a swamp of water, un-harvestable, leafy greens, diseased due to the damp.

But will such losses register with the farmer's customers, New Yorkers, the poster children for the busiest people on earth? Although NYC has a strong dining out tradition, for everyday meals, NY-ers are famed for eating on the run. No one has the time to look beyond the local farmer's market to the plight of the farmers who grow New York's food. While the rains may have passed from the headlines, their impact on area farmers is long-term.

"We can't plant cover crops (like rye) in flooded fields, which we usually do to protect the soil over the winter months," says Stosiek
rt. With weeds going to seed just now, com Spring, this unprotected soil will yield a weed, rather than a vegetable harvest. "An organic farm can't use pesticides for weed management," Stosiekrt says.

A few winters back, I attended a special dinner at Park Slope's Applewood Restaurant, which featured the produce grown at Lucky Dog. After a wonderful dinner, that blend of organic sustainable and New York connoisseurship that makes for a delicious meal, the chef told us diners that, "You can vote with your pocketbook to support organic and sustainable farms in our region by going to the farmer's market and eating at restaurants that use regionally grown food."

Back then that suggestion still made good sense.

Flash forward two years: In Lucky Dog's region, entire towns (like Fleischmann's and Prattsville) were leveled by rains and winds. "This is the worst flood in everyone's living memory," Giles told me. "We didn't lose our house and the kids are okay. But the fields were flooded. We lost all our crops -- lettuce, cabbages, and greens. We're losing the root vegetables, like potatoes, and onions, which are sitting in water and deteriorating underground."

Unfortunately, "The crop we lost is the crop we use to pay large bills," Giles told me. "Like the farm loans, financed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA)."

Farmers don't fall under FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Administration), but are administered by the FSA. Obviously, a renegotiation of loans will be needed. But will it be forthcoming in the current political climate? And who will notice when these crucial matters of public policy, impacting New York's foods, are determined?

"People don't expect a product like cars to just appear. There are industries and infrastructures that make that happen," Giles says. "Because we farmers love farming, we put forth that effort. But it shouldn't be our sole responsibility to supply New York's food in the absence of policies that sustain that."

"I choose to farm here and it's really good soil, and it's my choice and with these weather changes, it's becoming a poorer and poorer choice," Giles ruminates. "But if we admit it, we all know we have contributed to changing weather and flood patterns. We stand by and allow the gas drilling upstate to proceed. We leave it to farmers to go through whatever hardships to get the food to us. We cross our fingers and hope it will be okay."

"Is this really what food's worth?" he asks.

So my question to you is this, do you still believe that acting as a consumer and showing up to buy sustainable and healthy food is all you need to do to help farmers make that food available? If so, why? If not, why not?

To support Lucky Dog Farms and other upstate sustainable farms harmed by the flood, please contact them.

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