Frequent Floods Force Farmers to Rethink Age-Old Practices

'Climate chaos' led one upstate N.Y. farm to stop planting in fertile flood plains, a practice farmers have followed for thousands of years.

A flooded vegetable field at Hawthorne Valley Farm
A flooded vegetable field at Hawthorne Valley Farm. Credit: Steffen Schneider, the farm's director of operations

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In 2008, Katy Lince watched the vegetables she had nurtured at Hawthorne Valley Farm in upstate New York float down a rushing river that days before had been a peaceful creek nowhere near her crops.

“We thought, that was a weird flood,” said Lince, the farm’s field vegetables manager. “That’s not going to happen again.”

It did. The next year.

The floods forced Lince and Steffen Schneider, the farm’s director of operations, to reconsider an agricultural practice that farmers have followed for thousands of years: planting in flood plains, where the soil is particularly fertile.

“We started asking ourselves, ‘Is that really a prudent choice?'” Schneider said. “It’s a long-term issue for a lot of us in farming.”

Not only did the farm lose thousands of dollars worth of vegetables two years in a row, it lost an even more valuable resource: exposed topsoil that washed down the river.

Schneider said the apparently changing climate forced his hand.

“Floods are coming more and more frequently, and any time of year,” he said. “We call it ‘climate chaos.’ That’s more apt, I feel. With the veggies, we felt it was ridiculous to take the risk.”

The farm managers abandoned vegetable production on that plot and converted it to grasses and clover for their 55-cow dairy herd. Now if and when a flood comes, the grasses will not only prevent the loss of topsoil, they’ll catch the rich silt left behind.

Hawthorne Valley‘s vegetable operation, which serves locals and green markets in New York City, now occupies a rented, former hayfield five miles away. Schneider, who has been at the self-sustaining, ultra-organic farm since 1989, estimates the work at both locations cost about $100,000.

Rebecca Schneider (no relation to Steffen), an associate professor at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said more farmers will need to develop strategies to help them limit their losses in these situations.

“Overall, the consensus is we are having more extreme events,” said Schneider, whose specialty is water resource management and wetland hydrology. “Up here [in New York], we’re having more intense rainfall events, and that’s been documented.”

She thinks society should consider helping farmers deal with the changing environment. Governments could provide a pool of low-interest funds for farmers to upgrade or alter their infrastructure to handle the extremes.

Steffen Schneider said if he had the money, he would build more water collection facilities on the farm.

“Because the other side of the coin is, dry spells are happening more frequently than in the past, too,” he said.

Last summer, remnants of Hurricane Irene hit New York. For the third time in four years, what had been Hawthorne Valley’s vegetable field was under water. This time, though, the conversion to pastureland minimized the loss.

More trouble for farmers

Besides floods and droughts, many New York farmers this spring have had to contend with wild swings in temperatures. The record warmth in March threw off many plants’ natural rhythms and left them susceptible to damage when much cooler yet fairly typical weather returned in April.

“This had serious negative impacts on the fruit-growing areas of the state,” said Jonathan Comstock, a colleague of Rebecca Schneider’s at Cornell’s Department of Horticulture who specializes in the impacts of global climate change on New York.

Comstock said the state’s apple crop, worth $200 million to the farmers alone and as much $1 billion overall to the state’s economy, may be hit particularly hard.

The extreme March warmth caused many fruit trees to bud and blossom early, exposing tender, green growth. Frost in early April hurt some blossoms, then three weeks later, seven or eight inches of snow collected on the prematurely leafed-out trees, breaking some of their branches. The worst blow was a hard freeze, when temperatures got down into the mid 20s on April 28 and 29.

Most fruit trees have fairly complicated mechanisms for dealing with the variability of normal weather, he said. The trees have chill requirements, meaning they don’t respond to every little warm spell of the winter until after they’ve experienced plenty of cold weather.

“After reaching the chill requirements, most trees need a lot of warm days to put them in a vulnerable position. That happened this year. All those mechanisms were tricked.”

In the long term, most trees will recover, he said. Some may even treat blossom losses as a break—the trees can grow bigger and stronger because they won’t have to put their energies into fruit production this year.

But while trees may not be greatly injured, farmers who could lose an entire year’s crop will be.

“We don’t know if all is lost, but a large fraction could be,” said. “A lot of growers will have their whole crop wiped out.”

Cooler in April, But Still Unusual

Temperatures returned to closer to normal across most of the nation, but last month was still the third warmest April on record for the contiguous U.S., according to the National Climatic Data Center. The average temperature across the U.S. was 55.7 degrees, 3.6 degrees above the 20th century average.

The first four months of the year were the warmest Jan. 1 to April 30 period ever. Comprehensive record keeping in the U.S. began in 1895.

Also, the period from May 1, 2011 to April 30, 2012, was the warmest of such 12-month stretches ever.

Eight states had averages temperatures in April that were cooler than their March average. However, their April averages were still above the month’s long-term average.

Despite the Nor’easter late in the month that hit New York and much of the East, the April snow cover across the contiguous U.S. was the third smallest on record, according to the Rutgers Global Snow Lab.

Climate Central has created an interactive map showing cities where March was warmer than April.

From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):