HADLEY — A significant amount of political firepower packed itself into a nondescript field on Honey Pot Road on Saturday to look at acre upon acre of crops destined to be plowed into the ground.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Worcester, state Secretary of the Executive Office of Economic Development Yvonne Hao, state Commissioner of Agriculture Ashley Randle, state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Hampshire/Franklin/Worcester, and state Rep. Daniel Carey, D-2nd Hampshire District, gathered around farmer Willard McKinstry and his son Will as they explained how for a full two days more than 4 feet of flood waters from the nearby Connecticut River inundated their 63 acres of corn, squash, kale, collards, tomatoes and cucumbers. Now, they must plow the whole farm under.
“Nothing is going to save it,“ the older McKinstry said.
It is not just McKinstry’s, but the Four Rex Farm and other family farms up and down the Connecticut River Valley that are in the same boat. The McKinstrys also farm acreage in Chicopee and Granby and have a newly built farmstand in Chicopee. But the Hadley fields have been in the family since 1963 and are a mainstay of their operations.
Randle said the state has cataloged crop destruction and damage across Central Massachusetts, the Connecticut River Valley and in the Berkshires. At least 75 farms and almost 2,000 acres have been affected by the heavy rainstorms of the past week. More rain is in the forecast.
What makes the flooding from recent rains so devastating is the timing. Will McKinstry said the family has seen their property flooded year after year, as the spring snowmelt swells the river, but those come long before planting. The floods of the past week came late in the year, just as crops were almost ready for harvest.
“We have never had a flood so late in the season. This field of corn was going to be harvested next week,” he said pointing over his shoulder. He said that the farm has put in long hours of tilling, planting and fertilizing, followed by weeks of maintenance, to get it to this point. Now, because of contamination from chemicals and sewage, none of the crops can be salvaged, even for animal feed.
“Any of the vegetables or even the ears of corn that were touched by the flood water are contaminated,” McKinstry said. “The plants themselves will pull the contaminates from the soils up into the stems through their roots. None of this is usable. We can’t sell it for people to eat, and you don’t want to it feed to cows or anything, because they might get sick from it, and you don’t want to endanger your cattle.”
According to the University of Massachusetts Extension Service, flooding likely contains raw sewage, raw manure, agricultural or industrial chemicals, heavy metals and other chemical contaminants. Crops exposed to flood waters might also be contaminated with microbial pathogens, including bacteria, viruses and parasites from upstream farms and rural septic systems, urban lawns, roadways and overflow from municipal sewage treatment plants.
The contamination in the soil might not dissipate in one year, either. These fields might need to lay fallow for several years until soil testing indicates it is safe, McKinstry said.
Warren and McGovern were on hand to throw their weight behind any federal mitigation that could be brought to bear. Certainly, low-interest loans to help farmers rewrite existing debt at lower interest rates would be one likely avenue, Warren said. But, they both agreed that a presidential disaster declaration would open up a host of possibilities for local farmers, including grant money instead of more loans.
“A lot of these people are at the limit for loans; they can’t take on any more debt. They need operating expenses, and that means grants,” McGovern said. “We are trying to figure out what it takes to get a presidential disaster declaration. I think we are waiting to get all the costs that have been accumulated as a result of this, and I am not quite sure we are at that level yet.”
Crop insurance is not applicable to small area farms, McKinstry said when asked if he carried it.
“We looked into crop insurance, and for us we really never got any benefit from it. I have this sweet corn here that we lost, but I have other land that wasn’t flooded, and we didn’t lose the crop. But, if you had, say 2,000 acres that you lost, then the insurance would pay for the total crop loss, instead of an acre here and an acre there.”
Warren agreed that crop insurance was not designed for small-scale farming.
“I think the federal crop insurance program was clearly set up for the mega-farms in the West and Midwest,” she said. “We need to find other ways to help these smaller farms. Let’s just say the lobbying power is not as strong for the small- to medium-sized farms.”
“Imagine watching a tire float by in a field that used to be your crops. We are here now to talk to these farmers who actually plow this ground and put in the seeds and put in the time and put in the effort,” she said. “They are worried about the long-term consequences, as well. Bacteria that get into the soil, whether or not we are going to have mold later on — things like that. So, this is a crisis that continues to unfold and the damage is something that we have to address today, right now, because people have to pay their bills and pay their workers.”
For the state, Hao said her Executive Office of Economic Development has a package of programs developed from past disasters that could back up the federal loan programs with low-interest financing.
“We look at the entirety of the state, and it is very clear that farms and agriculture small businesses are a key part of the state’s economic health,” she said. “Sure, we have all sectors in our state. We have the high-tech sectors and manufacturing, financial services, but honestly, the foundation of our economy is a lot of small- to medium-sized family-run farms, and we need that not only for the economy but also for food security.”
Hao said the Healy administration is working cross-cabinet and with legislators to put together what they can for area farmers, but it might not be enough. That makes federal help imperative.
“To be honest, what we may be able to do (at the state level) probably is not going to be enough given the magnitude of the damage over time,” she said. “So, getting federal help and getting help from our broader state resources is going to be really important.”
Warren agreed with Hao and called for a partnership between the state and federal governments to find solutions.
“That’s why it is so important that we work together, because it is not something that we can solve entirely at the federal level, so it has to be a partnership,” she said.
Comerford said it is obvious that the state will have to step up with federal help to ensure local farmers are made whole.
“There are state grant programs, such as the Food Security Infrastructure Grant Program. Our farmers are saying they have enough of loans, and many are maxed out on loans. A crisis of this magnitude will require direct financial support. If we want to sustain our food system, if we want to make sure that our farmers have the resources they need both to survive this crisis and get ready for next year, that is the role of government.”