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Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, September 22, 2011

A farmer’s advice
Try to stay open and keep the customer relationship going

By Anne Hayden

A family-owned and operated farm in Middleburgh, which sells produce at a popular farm stand in Guilderland, lost more than 100 acres in crops as a result of the flooding from Tropical Storm Irene.

That means it also lost more than half of its annual income for 2011.

Barber’s Farm has been in operation for 154 years, and James Barber is the fifth-generation owner, with his nephew slated to take over.

The farm consists of roughly 180 acres in vegetable production, and only one small section of that acreage was high enough to avoid flooding during last month’s tropical storm. Only two or three acres of crops survived out of the 100 acres that had not yet been harvested.

“We’ve lost nearly all of the crops that we were growing in the fields; basically half of our income would occur from the day of the flood to the end of the year, so we lost half our income,” Barber told The Enterprise this week.

He explained that for most farms, the first part of the fiscal year involves borrowing and spending money, for purchasing seeds, labor, and planting, and then, in the fall, the money made is used to pay back operating funds.

“The first three months, all you are doing is spending money, then you start getting income from the produce and it takes a few months to balance things out, and the last couple of months you start making enough money to pay back what you borrowed,” said Barber. “We still have expenses to take care of, and now a much lower income.”

Crops are ruined during floods because, when they are submerged in water for long enough, they start to deteriorate, become diseased, and are no longer edible.

“The pumpkins floated away, the winter squash is gone, and all the row crops are full of mud,” Barber said.

Getting help

Barber is the state executive director of the Farm Service Agency. The most important thing for farmers, after floods, he said, is to document in detail all storm-related damage. He recommends taking photographs, writing down measurements, and having a qualified third party visit the farm and assess and verify the damage.

A representative from the Cornell Cooperative Extension, which has an office at 24 Martin Road in Voorheesville, would be considered a qualified individual to give a third party assessment, he said.

The governor’s office has estimated that tropical storms Irene and Lee together caused $73 million in agricultural loss and more than 200,000 acres of crops lost in New York.

The governor this week asked the president for a waiver to expand eligibility for flood insurance to New York farms retroactively, stating that crop insurance programs are designed for large Midwest states and are not geared for New York’s smaller, diverse specialty crop operations. As a result, Andrew Cuomo wrote to Barack Obama, few New York farms that incurred damage from the storms carried crop insurance or were enrolled in the non-insured crop disaster assistance program and should now be allowed to enroll.

If a farmer has crop insurance, there are several programs available for assistance in the wake of storm damages.

“On the loan side, there are emergency disaster loans, but farmers may also qualify for regular operating loans from the United States Department of Agriculture,” said Barber. Commercial farm-lending institutions, such as Farm Credit and NBT Bank, can also work with farmers directly, or work through the USDA to figure out the best terms for each farmer.

“Farmers should figure out how long it might take, how many years they need to operate the business to pay off the loss. That’s the key,” said Barber. Through the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, losses are normally repaid within one to seven years, but in special circumstances, terms of up to 20 years may be authorized.

“There is one effort called the Emergency Conservation Program, which helps clean up debris and can assist with some crop damage, but right now there is a national backlog — more people need the money than there is money available,” Barber said.

What farmers should do, said Barber, even if they do not have crop insurance, is go to the Farm Service Agency and report losses. That way, if Congress passes the Post-Irene Emergency Farm Aid Act, the losses will be on record.

The Post-Irene Emergency Farm Aid Act would authorize $10 million to support the Emergency Conservation Program, the program Barber said doesn’t have enough money to meet farmers needs right now. It would also authorize money to go into the Emergency Watershed Program, which provides emergency services and resources for agricultural communities after natural disasters.

Governor Cuomo has also created a $15 million Agricultural and Community Recovery Fund, which will be used for soil and water conservation districts in order to rebuild agricultural infrastructures. The Department of Agriculture and Markets, the Environmental Facilities Corporation, and the New York Farm Bureau will work with local governments to prioritize projects.

A list of potential assistance programs is available on the New York Farm Bureau website.

“The important thing is to cover all the bases, and try to stay open and keep the customer relationship going,” Barber said. He plans to keep Barber Farms running by purchasing produce from other farmers, who weren’t effected by the storm, and re-selling it.

The New York Farm Bureau has received countless calls from the public, asking how to support family farms in the weeks after the floods.

“The single best answer is to walk into a grocery store, walk into a farm market or local farm stand, and purchase New York grown fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and specialty agricultural goods,” said Dean Norton, president of the farm bureau, in a statement this week.

“That will at least keep our retail workers employed,” said Barber. The field workers, however, were retained for about three to four weeks after the storm, to help with cleanup, but they will be out of work when they normally would be employed for another three to four months.

“What we’re doing now,” he concluded, “is certainly better than not doing anything at all.” 

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