As the waters slowly recede, residents of South Carolina will begin to assess the damage caused by the incredible amount of rain, severe winds, high tides and ultimately the record breaking flooding. For farmers across the state of South Carolina hard decisions will have to be made as they survey their fields and determine, what, if anything can be done to salvage their fall crops.
Few businesses are as vulnerable to natural disasters as farms; their inventory and assets are exposed to the elements, unable to move or evacuate. A flooding event like the one South Carolina farmer’s experienced this weekend can literally wash an entire business out to sea. For those not familiar with the day-to-day of farming it is important to understand that in order to grow healthy plants ready for market, farmers must plan their seasons well in advance by ordering fall seeds, inputs (fertilizer, minerals etc.) and materials (row cover, seed trays) while it is still summer. For vegetable farmers, plants are started in greenhouses weeks prior to planting, cover crop is mowed down and incorporated, fields are cultivated and bedded up, irrigation is laid out, fertilizer spread and plants transplanted or direct seeded. All of these steps happen well in advance of planting and are labor and equipment intensive, costing the farmer thousands of dollars and days spent working from sunrise to sunset. And this my friends, is exactly the point in the season in which our farmers founds themselves this weekend before an entire fall season’s worth of rain arrived in less than three days. Local farms are now looking at not only loss of their plants and destruction of their fields but road washouts, equipment and infrastructure damage.
The two most common questions I have received are: “Can’t they just re-plant?” and “Don’t farms have crop insurance?” which unfortunately both have very complicated answers.
In the best of times, timing is a delicate dance for farmers because plants are very sensitive to daylight hours, rain and fluctuation in temperatures creating a window that may have already closed. Assuming there is still time, the farmers must first wait for the water to drain and the rain to stop while the planting window continues to narrow. Second, fields, ditches and roads must be repaired to provide access, drainage and planting beds. Then after this backbreaking work, they will take off their muddy boots and sit down in the office to crunch the numbers to calculate if they can afford a second planting and labor, determine what can still be planted this time of year and if there will be markets for them to sell their product to at later harvest dates. Most farmers will get back in the field because despite the risk, this is the profession they are passionate about and they are too far emotionally and financially invested to back down. Perhaps Mark Twain put it best, “Farming is gambling with dirt”.
After severe weather and natural disasters cause catastrophic destruction, one of the first things people ask victims is if they have insurance. Studies have shown that farmers are often the hardest hit by natural disasters and often receive the least amount of assistance despite the public service they provide the community. Although there are a number of crop insurance programs for farmers, these are simply not designed for small to mid-sized diversified vegetable producers and many of local operations do not qualify or have the capacity to apply to these programs.
The good news is that there are new programs coming down the line that are working to address this gap in services by providing support designed to meet the needs of these farms. The Whole Farm Revenue Projection program would create a system that allows diversified farms and smaller livestock operations to receive insurance protection from disasters like the one we are currently experiencing. Unfortunately this does not apply to the current damage but the most recent events will likely provide the incentive to apply for these future programs. To help farmers in their farm planning to better prepare for all of the risks associated with farming, Lowcountry Local First will be hosting a Whole Farm Planning Workshop on November 5, 2015 at the Johns Island Library from 10:30am to 5:30pm with support from Clemson Sustainable Agriculture and Ag South Farm Credit. This is one of many programs provided by Lowcountry Local First to provide farmers with business, production and risk management training to ensure their businesses can succeed.
Not a farmer but want to help?
We have received an outpouring of concern from individuals and groups that want to help the farming community through this tough time. Good news! Each and every one of you is a consumer and has the ability to support these farm businesses by being a loyal, patient and eager consumer. If you paid for a Community Supported Agriculture Share (CSA), then hopefully you recognize and respect the intent behind these business models in which you buy a “share” of the crops and take the risks alongside the farmer. Many farmers had to harvest everything out of their fields prior to the floods and currently have a bounty that needs to be moved quickly. Others will not have product again for months and need your patience. In the coming weeks, there will be flash sales, volunteer workdays, fundraisers and calls for support that I encourage you to participate in. And when the memory of the flood begins to fade, I hope you will continue to seek out ways to support your farmers by supporting businesses, organizations, policies and regulations that have their best interests in mind.
At the very minimum, you have three chances a day to support these hardworking individuals that spend their days fighting the odds in the fields to feed our families.
Update from October 26, 2015: Farm Aid is partnering with a number of organizations who work on the ground with farmers in South Carolina, regionally and nationally, including Carolina Farm Stewardship Association,Clemson Cooperative Extension, Farmers’ Legal Action Group, Federation of Southern Cooperatives, GrowFood Carolina, Lowcountry Local First, Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, and Sustainable Midlands. Make a donation to their Family Farm Disaster Fund to help Farm Aid assist South Carolina’s family farmers.
Post originally published on October 2015 for Lowcountry Local First, followed by the Charleston City Paper.