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Flooded Out of Luck

I don’t think anyone would argue that farming is a risky business. Nothing’s for sure, and there are no guarantees! Even when consumer demand is greater than supply, farmers are dealing with competition, labor issues, and, as we’ve seen this year, the weather. In August, what began as a welcomed rain soon turned into devastating floods. In Dane county, lake levels rose and streets turned into rivers. Traffic got backed up, and some of us came home to water in our basements. The next day, most of us went back to business as usual. For the organic farmers in Vernon and Crawford, this was not the case.

We’d been communicating with the farmers on how the rain was impacting them; most were more concerned about the long-term effects the drought was going to have on their production levels. On Tuesday, August 22nd, I returned from my weekend, and first thing as usual, checked my email. One of the farms, Avalanche Organics, reported they might have no production level! There was nothing from the other farms; it was still early in the morning, and we figured they were out accessing the damages.

Avalanche Organics
The first call went out to Avalanche, owned and operated by Joel and Jai Kellum. The Kellums were long time employees who had an opportunity to purchase the farm from the previous owners. The 2007 season was their first experience as business owners, and they were facing the common challenges encountered by all first time business owners. Avalanche had 50 acres in organic production, 20 full time employees, and seven part time.

Flooding completely destroyed 30 acres, and as of September 5th, they were down to one full-time employee, and two part-time helpers. The Kellums are uncertain as to whether or not they will continue to farm.

Harmony Valley
Next, we called Harmony Valley to see how they were doing. Like Avalanche, they farm the nutrient-rich soils in the bottomland of the Kickapoo Valley in Viroqua. We talked with Rhiannon, who was in the office while the rest of the crew was trying to get into the fields to assess damage and harvest anything they could salvage. It was sobering to hear her say, “We won’t have any melons; there’s none in the field. I saw them all going down the river.”

The local media
On Wednesday, it was the cover story for both the Capital Times and State Journal. Local news stations also featured segments on the flooding and its effects on organic agriculture. Finally, organic farmers where making headlines! Local media did a great job of bringing to the public’s attention the scale of organic farming in Wisconsin, and how this disaster could affect food prices on a national level.

CROPP and Organic Valley
The farms in the Kickapoo Valley region were hit hardest. This area is home to many of the state’s larger organic vegetable, dairy, and meat producers supported by co-ops throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin. CROPP and Organic Valley are located in the area, and have provided a strong infrastructure that has encouraged the growth of organic production in this area. Mudslides and flooding have destroyed crops, fencing, equipment, and lives. For experienced, veteran farmers, loans will need to be taken, and timely claims to insurance companies for small returns will be made. For those still building their farms and reputations, there are tough decisions to be made. The flood of 2007 will certainly push some farms out of production.

At the Co-op
For retailers like Willy Street Co-op who prioritize supporting local, certified farms, the impacts have been less severe and will probably be felt gradually. Initially, we had difficulty filling in from regional vendors on products we had been purchasing locally. Tender, delicate items like baby greens and baby spinach simply were not available. Avalanche and Featherstone had been supplying most of the upper mid-west with several varieties of cherry tomatoes that were ravished by the floods. Pictures from Avalanche show water levels on the trellises used for tomatoes at about four feet!

Taking a hit in support of organic agriculture
Farmers, retailers, and regional distributors have only recently begun to create systems and build an infrastructure that supports and promotes local, organic farmers. For years, most organic farmers directly supplied retailers, and the regional distributor was left out of the picture. Due to the increased demand for local, organic product to areas not serviced by the farmers, many of the large regional distributors are now working directly with organic farmers, opening up new venues for their products. So now, distributors are contracting with local farms, not California for product at this time of the year. When you have a regional catastrophe like we did, the supply chain is broken! In my opinion, distributors did the right thing--they didn’t call their brokers and bring in product from California. They waited to hear back from the local farmers and did what they could to help them sell what could be salvaged. Almost everyone took a financial hit in the best interest of organic agriculture.

In the long run
Consumers will most likely ended up paying more for their organic produce. Supply is down, and demand is always growing. Ironically, California growers are suffering through some tough times as well on many of the same products hardest hit by the floods here. In the Produce aisle at the Co-op, expect to see the local season wind down earlier on almost everything. Even in areas not flooded, the excessive rain has caused disease and premature rotting of product. I had written my last article for the Reader prior to the flooding, and had predicted a good supply on many local items well into September and through early October. This was not a good forecast.

Continued support
We will continue to work with and support the all of the local farmers we have the opportunity to work with. We send our best wishes in hopes they are able to continue their livelihoods and supply the Willy Street Co-op, other retailers, farmers’ markets, and CSAs with their wholesome foods. October is Organic Harvest Month, and we’ll be offering a 10 percent discount on selected farms the weekend of the 12th. So stop in and help us support organic agriculture and our local farmers!