In early 2012, Dayna Burtness launched her first farm on 6 acres of rented land in Northfield, Minnesota. She got off to a great start, landing high-profile restaurateurs from the Twin Cities as clientele and creating success in part by seeking her clientele’s suggestions about which produce to cultivate. Then, in June of her first season, disaster struck. Eight inches of rain created a river that was 50 feet wide that drowned one-third of Burtness’ crops and flooded her rented greenhouse space with 4 feet of water.
“That flood has affected most of the farming decisions I’ve made since,” Burtness said. Ultimately, the farmer opted to scale back on annual vegetables. Today, she maintains an 1/4-acre market garden for friends and family on a 67-acre farmstead in Spring Grove, Minnesota, and focuses on raising pastured livestock. “They’re way more resilient,” Burtness said.
In a good year, the Rogers harvest between 2,500 and 3,000 pounds of almonds on their 175-acre ranch in Madera, California. Although the ranch was founded more than 100 years ago, the first almond trees were planted in the 1980s. By 2003, the third generation of Rogers brothers had switched their entire operation to almonds. In 2011, the California drought started. Farming a thirsty crop in a drought was challenging enough. Then disaster hit two years in a row.
In 2014, during their most important growing period, the Rogers’ well stopped working. They still had water in the well but couldn’t access it until the well was fixed. It took five weeks for the parts they needed to arrive. In May 2015, shortly after the fruit had set, a hailstorm destroyed approximately 15 percent of the almond crop. Tom Rogers estimated the losses in one field were closer to 40 percent. Hailstorms are not abnormal for central California, but that storm was the first of that magnitude that the Rogers remember. “We had never seen that kind of a loss of almonds,” Tom Rogers said. ” It looked like someone had come and shook the almonds off the orchard.”
Because the hailstorm injured the trees, the Rogers had to alter their management techniques for about three weeks. It’s a documented response that when a tree goes through a major stress, like a hailstorm, it sheds more fruit about three weeks later to make itself healthy. To prevent this response, the Rogers changed the way they watered and fertilized, applying foliar products with microbes to essentially tell the tree, “You’re OK.”
Although the yield was down, the trees did not drop more fruit after the hailstorm. After the crisis passed, the Rogers assessed what they were doing and found that time spent in management went way up, while the time spent in the field decreased.
Losing their well during their important growing period led the Rogers to start using pulse irrigation on the ranch. They put soil moisture meters and weather stations all over the farm to monitor patterns, gather information and help them make the best decisions. Tom Rogers sits down at his computer each day to program the irrigation. The goal of pulse irrigation is to meet the needs of the tree without sending water beyond the root zone. The Rogers water one hour at a time, three times a day, seven days a week. “By pulse irrigating, we’ve reduced the amount of water that we’re using,” said Tom, who estimated they were applying 25 percent to 30 percent less water in 2016 than they were prior to losing the well. In addition, the almonds appeared to be doing better in 2016 than before. “We’re excited about that; we’re still learning; we’ll (spend) a lifetime figuring it out.”
Despite the disasters they faced in 2014 and 2015, the Rogers maintained production close to 2,500 pounds. “When backed into a corner, you start looking at how can I do this better?,” Tom said.
On Monday, June 22, 2015, a severe storm hit the tri-state area of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Renee Randall, of Willow Ridge Organic Farm in Wauzeka, Wisconsin, was on the phone when it started.
“I was looking out the window and it exploded into the house,” she recalled. “Shards of glass were everywhere. I went to the basement. When I came up, everything was completely different in my life. I have a two-story farm house. Part of the roof was gone. It was pouring rain into the basement. Wires were hanging everywhere. A giant maple was going across my porch. I couldn’t get out of the front door. This is not tornado alley where I live. I never expected a tornado.”
Randall lost almost everything when the tornado whipped across her 117 acres. The hoop house was crushed. The storage shed was blown off its foundation. The pounding rain, hail and high winds took a severe toll on the fruits and vegetables in the fields that weren’t leveled by the tornado. Trees were downed.
Randall experienced the kind of disaster that doesn’t just affect a person – it traumatizes them. Over a year later, Randall was still feeling the effects and wasn’t sure she’d be able to restore the operation and the life she had spent over 40 years building.
Ninety-one landowners and over 3,000 acres of privately owned woodlands were affected in Crawford County, Wisconsin. Crawford County did not meet the economic threshold for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance, but Randall believes that, had the damage to woodlands been included in the numbers, area landowners would have been eligible. The County Executive Director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) was looking for the kind of crop damage he was familiar with – corn and beans. He had not considered trees a crop, so he never assessed the damage to the woodlands as a farm loss. “In our area, farmers have used their trees as almost a savings account,” Randall said. “During the farm crisis of the ’80s, logging was used to offset debt.”
In 2015, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) estimated Crawford County’s damaged timber might sell as salvage, worth 30 percent of its original value. When, as a special request, the DNR forester examined Randall’s woods, they found that every acre of the 40-acre forest had tree damage.
“Twisted, uprooted, broken mature oak trees is not the kind of damage a farmer can handle without putting their life on the line,” said Randall, who felt hopeless and frustrated until she learned about the Emergency Forestry Restoration Program (EFRP). The program had never been used or even offered by any agency in Wisconsin or surrounding states. “It’s on the books – legislated – and never offered out to farmers,” Randall said. “When I mentioned that it was never offered out, the response was that it was up to farmers to know what’s on the books.”
The passion Randall brought to farming is now directed at helping her neighbors to recover some of the loss via EFRP. She started by lobbying FSA’s county committee to approve the necessity for it.
“I’ve worked on it since January. It’s gone to Washington with the request for EFRP funding. It’s been approved at that level, but no money has been allocated yet. Because it’s a cost-share program, you have to spend the money first and then get reimbursed by the government,” she said. “And, since this program has never been implemented it’s taking some time to administrate. Now that the program has emerged as a given entity, the county director has thrown himself into making this program workable.”
Randall will get money to clean up and restore her woods. However, the oak woodland she stewarded for decades will take over 50 years to come back. Randall will not live to see the result of her efforts to save her forest.
To recover her produce operation, Randall leveraged relationships. Members of her community-supported agriculture (CSA) program supported her through the tornado, and Kings Hill farm donated produce to help her through to the end of the season. Friends created a GoFundMe page that raised about $4,500. The funds helped her clean and replant and enabled her to finish the season. Neighbors bartered with Randall: organic hay in exchange for a new metal roof on her house. Seeing how depressing the landscape damage was in front of the house, they donated a day to give the landscaping a facelift. “It was a spirit lift as well,” she said.
Randall reported a strong 2016 CSA sign-up. At the time of this writing, she was managing to supply the CSA, despite the fact that she still hadn’t been able to replace her hoop house, shed and small equipment. “If I can make it through this year, I’ll have to reassess what needs to be done next,” Randall said.
In 1999, Vicki Westerhoff took over her family’s 20-acre farm in St. Anne, Illinois, and established a farming partnership called Genesis Growers, Inc. By 2015, Genesis Growers was a 65-acre certified organic farm with sales at farmers markets, wholesale to restaurants and a CSA. Westerhoff was growing approximately 350 varieties of herbs and vegetables, until a six-week deluge in June and July 2015 flooded her fields and destroyed her crops.
“We dug ditches to drain the water repeatedly,” Westerhoff said. “But rains kept falling. I would get the water drained off and we would have another deluge. It rained several inches at a time and in close enough proximity that we never really dried out. The final flood ran like white water rapids across my land. At that point, any crop that had managed to survive was wiped away.”
Westerhoff altered her cropping scheme and tried field leveling to facilitate drainage after the flood in 2015. “Next year I am going to do more work in this area and will implement a raised bed system. Since I have very light soil, I have not felt the need to use raised beds, but when the rains come unbidden they would help,” she said.
The deluges of 2015 ended in late July. Westerhoff started re-planting fast-growing baby greens and root vegetables on July 28. With a lot of hard work and diligence (and the delayed onset of cold weather) Westerhoff and her team managed to harvest a decent crop, which she sold over the winter months. “Farming is a tough business with low profit margins, so a disaster can cause incredible problems,” Westerhoff said. “So far this year we have made it, but (we) are by no means in good shape financially. It would be a struggle no matter what, but we began having continual rains in July this year that have damaged many crops. I am back to having to replant in hopes of a good winter season to tide us over.”
Westerhoff described herself as a fortunate farmer who received help from loyal customers. “From the beginning I decided I did not want to be a nameless, faceless farmer. The fact that I know so many of my customers is the reason I am still able to farm and I thank them all with all my being.”
Read more: Crop Insurance and Peace of Mind
When disaster hits
Responding to a life-altering disaster requires the ability to think quickly and spring to action and the willingness to reach out for help and find resources you may not have known existed. When an event occurs that brings you to your knees, perhaps the most important tool for survival is adaptability – a willingness to learn from the experience, to learn from others and to envision a new modus operandi for yourself and your operation.
Ana Otto, of Arizona Farm Bureau, advises farmers to have cash reserves and a good relationship with their local loan officer. Farmers lacking cash reserves and sufficient credit can turn to various aid programs. In 2014 and 2015, the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) Foundation provided $33,000 in assistance to organic operations from 18 states, including Willow Ridge Organic Farm and Genesis Growers, Inc. In addition to CCOF’s $500 Bricmont Hardship Assistance Award, Randall received a Farm Aid grant for $500, to be used for household (not business) expenses.
Farming organizations are another valuable resource to turn to in times of distress. “When natural disasters occur, Farm Bureau can help lobby state and federal officials for disaster relief if it is slow in coming,” Otto said.
In addition, a national community of farmers and ranchers within Farm Bureau provides financial and other assistance when disaster strikes. In August of this year, after floods in Louisiana caused an estimated $100 million-plus in crop losses during harvest time, American Farm Bureau reached out to Louisiana Farm Bureau to offer assistance.
Relationships with suppliers, crop specialists, extension agents, etc. are another key to getting back on track after disaster strikes.
Burtness, Randall, Rogers and Westerhoff recovered from the disasters that befell their farms, but their operations will be forever changed – in some cases, for the better; in other cases, it’s too soon to tell. Burtness took the simplest approach: changing focus. Randall received assistance from friends, neighbors and private and public funding programs. Until her farm is cleaned up and safe again, she can only grow a fraction of the produce she once did. The Rogers found learning to be their salvation. Westerhoff reached out for information and accepted help from the supportive community she had spent 17 years cultivating. What can you do if faced with a disaster?
Read more: Natural Disaster Preparedness