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What the storm means for local farmers and how you can help

Field of Broken Dreams

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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. Farm support agencies surveying the loss on a regional and statewide scale are grappling with what exactly is the best path forward and how to advise these businesses as we all receive a crash course in disaster management and insurance coverage for flood-related damage. Due to the scale and severity of this event, victims of the national disaster will have the opportunity to apply for support and services based on their losses as individuals, businesses, or organizations. The S.C. Emergency Management Division and FEMA have outlined protocols for claims but the process itself is very nuanced, even more so if you are operating a business as unique as a farm operation.

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 this can literally wash an entire business out to sea. Even when the weather is cooperative, pest and disease damage is minimal, and labor is available, these businesses are already operating on extremely tight profit margins and sell into a constantly fluctuating market.

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) 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 very 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 found themselves in two weekend's ago when an entire fall season's worth of rain arrived in less than three days. Months of planning, investment, planting, blood, sweat, and tears washed away in a weekend.

The two most common questions I have received are: "Can't they just re-plant?" and "Don't farms have crop insurance?" Both questions unfortunately 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 that create 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, farmers will take off their muddy boots and sit down in the office to crunch the numbers to calculate if they can 1) afford a second planting and associated labor, 2) determine what can still be planted this time of year, and 3) speculate on 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."

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 local operations do not qualify or have the capacity to apply to these programs. On the up side, there are new programs coming down the line that address this gap in services by providing support designed to meet the needs of these farms. The Whole Farm Revenue Protection program updates for 2016 create a system that allows diversified farms and smaller livestock operations to receive insurance protection. Unfortunately this does not apply to the current damage, but recent events will likely provide farms with the incentive to apply for these future programs.

As a community that loves our farmers, seeing them suffer a devastating blow of this magnitude is heartbreaking. The 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 purchased 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.

Nikki Siebert Kelley is the director of sustainable agriculture at Lowcountry Local First.

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