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Hurricane Irene Devastates Organic Farmers in the Northeast – How We Can Help and What it Means for Consumers

For some people, Hurricane Irene has come and gone and we are back to living our normal lives.

Yet, for many organic farmers in the Northeast, the storm has been devastating.

The organic farmers hardest hit have been in Eastern New York, Southern Vermont, Western Massachusetts, Western Connecticut and Northern New Jersey.


Along with losing their electricity, many farmers have had their properties completely flooded, which is a disaster for two reasons.

One, they have lost everything that is in the ground now.

Before the storm came, however, a good number of farmers knew that the hurricane was on its way and harvested as much as they could, as fast as they could. Even still, many lost a tremendous amount.

Two, the timing of the hurricane has wiped out the rest of the 2011 growing season for the farmers.

If a property gets flooded, there is a 60-day recommended waiting period before a farmer can start planting again.

However, in 60 days it will be too late to grow radishes or greens for the end of the fall. The season will be over.

“That is what makes it so devastating for many of our organic farmers,” said Nicole Dehne, Organic Certification Administrator for NOFA-VT (Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont). “They won’t have a chance this year to recoup what they lost. The timing couldn’t have been worse.”

In terms of assessing the damage to the organic community, it is a little too early to tell.

Lisa Engelbert, the Dairy Program Adminstrator at NOFA-NY Certified Organic LLC, said that she hadn’t heard from many of her farmers just yet. Either they still don’t have electricity or they are spending all of their time trying to save or fix whatever they can.

Michael Hurwitz, Director of the Greenmarket Program at GrowNYC, expects that “some farmers will have very difficult months ahead of them but I don’t anticipate significant reduction of product availability at our (NYC) markets.”

That being said, he believes that some farmers who have been fixtures at the markets for years might not be there for the rest of the 2011 season.

In terms of getting federal assistance, I have been told that Governor Cuomo of NY has declared a state of agriculture emergency, which is required to get emergency funding from the USDA.

Furthermore, industry leaders are hoping that traditional lenders will follow the lead of the Farm Credit Bureau to really work with the farmers and not let them go out of business.


While making sure the farmers survive is of paramount importance, many consumers might be asking whether these organic farms will lose their organic certification.

“A flood or natural disaster is out of the farmers’ control, and the National Organic Program recognizes this. Any contaminants in the water will be very diluted by the fresh water, so most of the farmers should be okay and they will not lose their certification. If there is a question about a certain farm, we would then require testing,” said Lisa Engelbert of NOFA-NY.


There are a few ways that we can help.

1) Shop at your local farmer’s market as much as you can. Many small organic farmers sell directly to consumers, via markets or CSAs, and do not have big distribution channels.

As I mentioned, many farmers anticipated the hurricane and harvested as much as they could before the storm. So, they’ll be showing up with whatever product they have and each dollar is going to count.

For the organic farmers that didn’t get hit or got partially hit, we need to continue to support them as much as possible.

2) Volunteer your time and energy if you live close to any of these farms. Some, not all, of the local NOFA chapters may be able to help locate a farm in need.

Also, the Lower Hudson Valley Crop Mob (NY) is organizing volunteering at local farms that need assistance.

3) Make donations to help these farmers.

When devastation happens in other parts of the world, Americans are quick to help out.

While there were very few deaths from Irene compared to the disasters in Haiti or Japan, we still need to support our fellow Americans because the federal government is just not going to make everyone whole.

It is because of these hard-working, small farmers in the countryside that allow us to eat the most nutritious food possible – organic food – and we cannot forget them in times like these.

Here are a few ways to give money:

NOFA-VT has set up a Farmer Emergency Fund.

GrowNYC is collecting donations to help local farmers (organic and non-organic). Click HERE to donate.

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