Biblical Floods Are Coming for America’s Farms
Vermont was a warning for American agriculture.
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.)
“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.