In the last decade, unprecedented natural disasters have devastated Northeast growing operations of all sizes. The double whammy of tropical storms Irene and Lee sent the waters of the Schoharie Creek in Upstate New York surging over its banks, flooding barns and carrying silt from the raging stream into farm fields, ruining hundreds of acres of crops.

Less than five years later, growers in southern New Jersey learned what a “derecho” is when Hurricane Sandy arrived. “A ‘derecho’ was used to describe the 80-plus mph winds that ripped across the southern three counties of New Jersey, leaving homes and businesses to contend with downed trees and powerlines. They were without power from three days to three weeks,” said Richard W. VanVranken, agricultural agent/ professor, county extension department head at Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County in New Jersey.

Winter snow and ice storms interspersed between the notable wind and rain events have been equally devastating. “Two years in a row, Connecticut was hit with unprecedented snowfall. Rather than a few inches of snow, 24 inches arrived,” Joan Nichols, director of member relations and community outreach at the Connecticut Farm Bureau, said.

“Snowvember,” a snowstorm that hit Western New York in November 2014 dumped 88 inches of snow. The storm required more manpower than any other snowstorm in the history of New York. The accumulated snow collapsed greenhouses, farm buildings and many trees. “A college classmate of mine from the area lost a greenhouse full of holiday plants to the blizzard that hit last year,” VanVranken noted.

Despite an increase in natural disasters, attributed to climate change, producers in the Northeast are far less prepared than their peers in other parts of the country. “The tornado belt in the Midwest and the Gulf states that deal with hurricanes annually are far ahead of our region in emergency preparedness,” Nichols added.

Storm vs. natural disaster

It’s no secret that life as a grower is challenging. Despite advances that have improved efficiency, crop yields and increased disease resistance, growers are largely at the mercy of Mother Nature. Whether cultivating orchards of fruit trees, groves of nut trees or raising crops under the cover in a greenhouse, weather events can be costly and threaten the business’ viability.

Rain, wind, snow and ice storms cause sleepless nights for growers worried about crop and facility loss. However, natural disasters increase the magnitude of concern. Natural disasters are widespread and cause costly damage to the environment, infrastructure, homes and businesses. They cause severe injuries and potentially even loss of human life.

“Events that cause significant loss of life, property, or income tend to be categorized as disasters,” VanVranken explained.

When looking at weather-related disasters, the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) looks for disaster declarations for individual farms and or county-wide losses of 30 percent or more of single crops. In recent years, FSA usually offers low-interest emergency loans to commercial growers reporting loss rather than disaster grants that were common in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Usually if one crop qualifies for the disaster declaration, farmers who can show 30 percent plus losses of other crops in the same counties will also be eligible to participate in whatever programs FSA has to offer.”

Photos courtesy: V_ZAITSEV & ALISBALB/ISTOCK

Plan and prepare

In some cases it’s impossible to fully prevent destruction, but the better prepared you are, the more likely your operation will survive. VanVranken encourages growers to use four key strategies for weathering a storm.

First, assess your business/situation. Compile a detailed inventory list of all the operation’s assets. Include notes on which areas of the operation are most vulnerable to damage.

Next, create a plan. Prepare a written plan that outlines important logistics. Include where employees should meet up in case they are separated. Identify who is in charge of key operations. Note locations of critical tools, equipment and backup generators. Make a list of key contacts and include working phone numbers.

Then, communicate. Talk with family and key employees before a natural disaster strikes. Share the formal plan on how to evacuate, who is in charge, etc. Work with first responders and neighbors well in advance of an emergency so that they know where access points are as well as critical storage areas that may contain chemicals, fuels, feed for animals, electric/gas switches, etc.

“Get involved with your local emergency management directors and let them know your operation exists and what your needs will be in an emergency,” Nichols said. Learn how the emergency response department in your area works. “In Connecticut, a farmer’s instinct is to call the Department of Agriculture, but it’s equally important they let local emergency management know they need help,” she added.

Photo courtesy: STANROHRER/ISTOCK

Finally, prioritize areas of concern. In the written plan, highlight which areas of the operation are most important and least important. Include timelines of how quickly each area needs to be addressed in an emergency.

A storm is on the way

As soon as a storm is predicted, it’s imperative to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

  • Have weather-resistant shelter(s) stocked with food, clothing, and bedding available for family and employees.
  • Have backup generator(s) in working order and full of fuel, along with a supply of extra fuel available, critical not only for human needs, but also for feeding/watering/protecting livestock, keeping heat/ventilation running for crops in greenhouses, keeping coolers running for stored produce, etc.
  • Add bracing and extra support to susceptible structures to reduce potential for collapse. This is critical for greenhouses in snow storms and high tunnels in wind storms. “It’s especially important for you to know the structures on your property and understand whether the tunnel’s vulnerability to wind is greater if side vents are open or closed,” VanVranken said.
  • Before a potential storm, check the water drainage systems that divert excess from critical areas are clear and operational. “Make sure dead trees or limbs cannot fall on something or someone that can be damaged or injured,” he added.

Learn more

Resources are available to help growers better establish emergency preparedness plans. The most comprehensive tool, the ReadyAG workbook, supported by Penn State Cooperative Extension and the U.S. Department of Agriculture – National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), provides strategies for any type of operation. The workbook includes sheets specifically designed for fruit growers and addresses concerns specific to those operations. The workbook can be found at http://extension.psu.edu/prepare/readyag/readyag-workbook.pdf.

In addition to the ReadyAG workbook, additional resources are available.

“When we began efforts to help growers with emergency preparedness, we found a lot of information already available online that can easily be applicable to any farm in the United States,” Nichols said. The materials collected are now available on the Connecticut Farm Bureau’s (CFBA) website at http://cfba.org/.

CFBA Emergency Preparedness Webinar: This one-hour webinar walks farmers through the necessary steps to review and implement a farm emergency plan including identifying risks and vulnerable areas. The program reviews the importance of completing assessment worksheets and action plans, developing a farm emergency map, identifying priority areas and creating an emergency contact sheet. Open http://www.cfba.org/emergency.htm to view the PowerPoint file.

Cornell University Course: Provides information on a six-hour in-person course that offers a certificate to farmers in farm disaster preparedness. http://emergencypreparedness.cce.cornell.edu/fdpcert/Pages/default.aspx.

Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN) Webinars: This website offers webinar training on a wide range of farm disaster issues. http://eden.lsu.edu/EDENCourses/Pages/default.aspx.