Sign In or Create an Account.

By continuing, you agree to the Terms of Service and acknowledge our Privacy Policy


Biblical Floods Are Coming for America’s Farms

Vermont was a warning for American agriculture.

A flooded farm.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

As floods inched towards Diggers’ Mirth Collective Farm in Burlington, Vermont earlier this month, a small army of volunteers from the region descended upon the farm for three days with one goal: Get as many of the farm’s organic vegetables out of the ground as quickly as possible.

At noon on July 11, when the waters finally reached the farm, co-owner Dylan Zeitlyn and the farm’s other owners and employees departed for safety. A few hours later, Zeitlyn and a number of other farmers from the Intervale — a floodplain on the Winooski river in Burlington that boasts seven farms — gathered for a group canoe trip into the fields to assess the damage. Zeitlyn estimated that his farm’s last-ditch efforts salvaged $10,000 worth of vegetables. Underwater, he was canoeing over $200,000 in lost crops that could not be harvested.

“We got wiped out,” he told me. “There’s no recovery for any plant that’s in the ground.” The farm’s five owners do not expect to be paid this year; its five employees have all lost their jobs for the season. Once floodwater touches a crop, the FDA forbids it from being sold for consumption, as the waters tend to be contaminated by sewage or industrial runoff. And while the farm has crop insurance, the farm has never used it before and does not know what to expect.

The flood was devastating for farms like Diggers’ Mirth, but it was also a reminder: Climate change-driven floods are set to disrupt America’s food supply and there’s not that much farmers can do about it.

The total impact of the flooding on Vermont’s agricultural sector — a small but critical piece of the state’s economy — is unknown at this point. As of last week, the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont has heard from 85 farms that were damaged by the waters.

Catastrophic flooding is not a new risk for farmers. Vermont’s farms are particularly exposed to floods due to the state’s hilly terrain — in 2011, Tropical Storm Irene destroyed tens of thousands of acres of crops. And flooding can happen anywhere, as it did in Nebraska and Iowa in 2019.

Any farmland on floodplains, or low-lying terrain in general, is at risk, said Jason Otkin, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who studies agriculture and meteorology. (One EPA map shows that in large chunks of the country, farmland dominates floodplains.)

What’s new, though, is the frequency of such heavy rain, especially in New England — a clear sign of a warming climate.

“This … is one of the predictive consequences of climate change,” said Molly Anderson, a professor of food studies at Middlebury College in Vermont. “More water falling less predictably, but more in surges.”

Vegetable farms have it the worst in a flood, losing their harvest for a year, noted Joshua Faulkner, a University of Vermont professor researching climate change and agriculture.

Vermont’s agriculture is dominated by dairy, but that sector was hit too. Dairy farms lost hay and corn for feedstock, while the floods closed roads for milk deliveries. (The state’s maple industry will largely emerge unscathed, it seems.)

As floods become more common across the country, they will likely lead to increased food costs for consumers, Faulkner added. And the people who suffer the most from those price increases will be low-income people who receive food assistance, Anderson explained.

Look at the issue for long enough, and it becomes clear that it’s within everyone’s interest to mitigate the impacts of flooding on farms. The only problem: Nobody really knows how to do it.

Otkin explained that tilling soil less often will make it more resilient to both heat and moisture. But in the event of a severe flood, “it really doesn’t matter how much you build your soil health,” Faulkner explained.

And crop insurance, which is both subsidized and regulated by the federal government, could be expanded in spite of it becoming a worse bet for insurers, but that still wouldn’t solve the problem of a dearth of food production. (Crop insurance payments due to flooding increased by nearly 300 percent from 1995 to 2020, the Conservation Finance Network found.)

Other strategies are out there. Farms can move to higher ground, implement emergency plans to harvest crops before floods as Zeitlyn’s farm did, or invest in different types of buffers. But at the end of the day, nothing can prevent floods themselves, Faulkner said: “There’s lots of strategies we talk about for climate change impacts, but of all the impacts, flooding is the most difficult.”

The road forward for farms is unclear, but farmers will have to be involved in charting the path ahead, Anderson said.

“They are hugely resistant to being told what to do,” Anderson explained, pointing to a protest in the Netherlands last year after the country demanded its farmers make a sharp cut in their livestock supply. “They tend to be very independent people.”

Lindsey Brand, marketing and communications coordinator for NOFA-VT, added that many farmers in Vermont are already working hard to sequester carbon, making the blow of the floods even more crushing for the farmers “working a really difficult job often for the betterment of our shared environment.”

Zeitlyn has already started asking existential questions about the business he co-owns.

“I feel like in a certain way, it’s crazy to continue to keep trying to grow vegetables here,” he said. “Flooding is part of the natural history of this place, but the frequency and severity of the floods is making it from something that happens once in a long while to — I’m wondering if this is going to start happening every year.”

“You can think, ‘Yeah, this is crazy, why am I doing this?’” he wondered. “I’m growing food, and we need to grow food, and we’re trying to do it in a sustainable way as well. There’s a conundrum there.”

Anderson pointed to the possibility that farmers could (and, in dairy-reliant states like Vermont, should) diversify their crops — berries can get moldy, but turkeys are perhaps more resilient to rain.

Her advice illustrates a thorny problem: Even as climate change demands we shift our consumption towards plants, the incentive to grow vegetables in places like Vermont might actually be waning.

Will Kubzansky profile image

Will Kubzansky

Will was an intern at Heatmap from Washington, D.C. He was also the editor-in-chief of the Brown Daily Herald. Previously, he interned at the Wisconsin State Journal and National Journal.


Is Sodium-Ion the Next Big Battery?

U.S. manufacturers are racing to get into the game while they still can.

Sodium-ion batteries.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images, Peak Energy, Natron Energy

In the weird, wide world of energy storage, lithium-ion batteries may appear to be an unshakeably dominant technology. Costs have declined about 97% over the past three decades, grid-scale battery storage is forecast to grow faster than wind or solar in the U.S. in the coming decade, and the global lithium-ion supply chain is far outpacing demand, according to BloombergNEF.

That supply chain, however, is dominated by Chinese manufacturing. According to the International Energy Agency, China controls well over half the world’s lithium processing, nearly 85% of global battery cell production capacity, and the lion’s share of actual lithium-ion battery production. Any country creating products using lithium-ion batteries, including the U.S., is at this point dependent on Chinese imports.

Keep reading...Show less
Electric Vehicles

AM Briefing: Tesla’s Delay

On Musk’s latest move, Arctic shipping, and China’s natural disasters

Tesla Is Delaying the Robotaxi Reveal
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Current conditions: Heavy rains triggered a deadly landslide in Nepal that swept away 60 people • More than a million residents are still without power in and around Houston • It will be about 80 degrees Fahrenheit in Berlin on Sunday for the Euro 2024 final, where England will take on Spain.


1. Biden administration announces $1.7 billion to convert auto plants into EV factories

The Biden administration announced yesterday that the Energy Department will pour $1.7 billion into helping U.S. automakers convert shuttered or struggling manufacturing facilities into EV factories. The money will go to factories in eight states (including swing states Michigan and Pennsylvania) and recipients include Stellantis, Volvo, GM, and Harley-Davidson. Most of the funding comes from the Inflation Reduction Act and it could create nearly 3,000 new jobs and save 15,000 union positions at risk of elimination, the Energy Department said. “Agencies across the federal government are rushing to award the rest of their climate cash before the end of Biden’s first term,” The Washington Post reported.

Keep reading...Show less

What the Conventional Wisdom Gets Wrong About Trump and the IRA

Anything decarbonization-related is on the chopping block.

Donald Trump holding the IRA.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The Biden administration has shoveled money from the Inflation Reduction Act out the door as fast as possible this year, touting the many benefits all that cash has brought to Republican congressional districts. Many — in Washington, at think tanks and non-profits, among developers — have found in this a reason to be calm about the law’s fate. But this is incorrect. The IRA’s future as a climate law is in a far more precarious place than the Beltway conventional wisdom has so far suggested.

Shortly after the changing of the guard in Congress and the White House, policymakers will begin discussing whether to extend the Trump-era tax cuts, which expire at the end of 2025. If they opt to do so, they’ll try to find a way to pay for it — and if Republicans win big in the November elections, as recent polling and Democratic fretting suggests could happen, the IRA will be an easy target.

Keep reading...Show less