Home Agriculture Farmers strive to recover after 2011 devastation

Farmers strive to recover after 2011 devastation

The Pine Island “Black Dirt” region was ready for boaters, not farmers, after twin storms struck in late August.

Tropical Storms Irene and Lee unleashed a powerful economic blow in August after flooding the region’s farmlands and in turn decimating hundreds of acres of crops that were about to be harvested.

Crop loss was in the millions of dollars, as was post-crop canning production. Farmland infrastructure also incurred millions of dollars in damage.

Now, three months later, farmers are still reeling since economic assistance is limited to just a fraction of their immense losses.

Although federal, state and local officials visited the hardest hit areas of the region – particularly farms that bordered the Wallkill River in Orange County – little has been done to further assist farmers in recovering from the financial impact.


Farmers Raymond and Michelle Glowaczewski of Pine Island’s R&G Produce lost everything when the Wallkill River overflowed.

$100M in losses

Of the five counties in the mid-Hudson region, Orange appears to have sustained the most devastating losses in terms of crops and infrastructure damage, according to statistics compiled by Maire Ullrich, acting agricultural program leader for the county’s Cornell Cooperative Extension in Middletown.

“The reality is we lost millions of dollars. The fresh vegetable industry is worth over $60 million, and when you include processing and packaging, well over $100 million. To have an impact on those kind of losses, farmers are hard pressed to get financial support from the government,” Ullrich said.

Ullrich said the state – already looking at a $2.5 billion deficit in the 2012-2013 budget – set aside $15 million to provide some compensation. Of that amount, $5 million went to soil and conservation districts for remediation work.

“It won’t fix everything, but it will definitely help. There is a cost share involved. In order for farmers to get state money, they had to come up with 25 percent of the project cost. If the cost was $100,000, they had to come up with $25,000. For farmers whose money was all in their crops, it was not possible for them to participate in the program.”

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer talk to Pastor Hugh Farrish, whose Mount Vernon congregation grew crops in the Black Dirt region to distribute to needy city families.

Other farmers received funding through the Agricultural Recovery Commodity Fund. “If you had to buy products or replace products you lost during the storm, the cost share is 50 percent—up to $10,000,” Ullrich said.  “Those applications were finalized the first week of November. For dairy farmers who lost all their feed and had to buy corn, they are also covered for the cost of the feed, up to $10,000. Some who have farm stands and lost their pumpkins and had to buy them were also eligible to receive some funding.”

Farmers in the Black Dirt region – where the soil was abundant with onions, vegetables and root crops – gathered at Pawelski Farm in Pine Island to meet with U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer a few days after Tropical Storm Irene left the area. Although both Schumer and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand are working to get federal aid for farmers, it’s an uphill battle.

Among the dozens of farmers who gathered in the barn to meet with Schumer, Raymond and Michelle Glowaczewski, owners R&G Produce, who could not afford the cost of crop insurance, lost everything to the flooding, as did Bowen Memorial Baptist Church in Mount Vernon.

“We rented 23 acres here that were nearly ready for harvest, but they are all underwater,” Pastor Hugh Farrish said. “All the crops we raised were given to seniors in New Rochelle, Mount Vernon and the Bronx free of charge.  “There are so many people in need of fresh vegetables who cannot afford them. … Now, we have nothing to give them and don’t know if we will be able to recover from this and come back next year.”

Communities came out quickly to help the farmers;  the town of Warwick’s Farm Aid concert raised more than $100,000. As a result, 46 farms in the town and village received $2,200. “It may not sound like much,” said onion farmer Christopher Pawelski, “but believe me, if it helped pay a few bills, it was a lot.”

Pawelski, whose family has farmed onions in the region for three generations, is contemplating if this will be the last hurrah. “I’m $200,000 in debt. I ordered seed for next year, but it was only contingent on me being able to cancel my order. I am really not sure what we’ll do going forward.”


Fruit growers impacted

Theresa Rusinek, vegetable crop educator in Ulster County, said vegetable farmers lost approximately $10 million in crops and $5 million in infrastructure.

“Some farmers had crop insurance, and there was some money from the state. There were also several fundraisers held to help our local farmers. In Ulster, those farms near the Rondout and Esopus creeks were especially affected.”

Rusinek said some Ulster farmers are uncertain if they will be able to continue.

“Their fields have been so badly eroded it may literally take ten years for them to restore those that lost all their topsoil. I’m hoping people may just scale back and not totally go out of business, but a few really need to evaluate what their situation will be after any assistance comes in.”

Michael Fargione, a fruit specialist with Ulster’s Cornell Cooperative Extension, said “It was an extremely trying year in terms of what Mother Nature put in front of the growers, but overall, they did adequately.”

“When it came to damage, it was not so much the loss of crop as it was damage to culverts, dams and irrigation ponds.  Most growers lost some trees.  The soaked, muddy soil made it very difficult to get into orchards with equipment. Luckily, there was no wind or it would have been a much more costly and devastating story.”

The October snowstorm had a minimal effect on apple orchards, Fargione said, since those trees are pruned in a way to support heavy loads.

Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association, said despite the unusual and challenging season – 22 inches of rain in six weeks and the Halloween weekend snowstorm – most orchards were able to weather the storm.

“Statewide, we came out much better than expected,” Allen said. “But as far as getting assistance and help on a federal or state level, I’ve learned over the years it usually doesn’t happen … and when it does, it is in the form of low-interest loans, which can be difficult to obtain if you have exhausted your credit.”

One of the other programs that kicks in is crop insurance, Allen said, “which is a continuously burdensome program the government supports. The premiums are high and many farmers forego taking out insurance as a result. We continue to work on the program and make it easier for growers to participate in it.  It does not cover 100 percent – and it is an investment – but as far as government stepping in, I’ve heard that not much is coming back.”

With agriculture New York state’s biggest industry, “We need to have programs in place to help our farmers when devastation strikes,” Allen said. “As we sit and write the 2012 Farm Bill, let’s hope our government will not slash investments in this prime industry.”


  1. Once again an excellent article by Kathy and your publication! I cannot emphasize enough how good a job you guys do in covering ag in the Hudson Valley and how important it is. I go down to Capitol Hill on a regular basis and I share a number of media pieces with staff of various offices and many of the media pieces I share are from your publication. You bring important attention to a vital part of our economy, one long ignored and our policy makers know they cannot ignore it, thanks in part to your coverage.

    Again, thank you Kathy and thank you HV Biz for the coverage … well done! I should mention this article has been posted on multiple Facebook Walls as well as sent to multiple offices of staff of policy makers.


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