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‘This year is kind of a wash’: NH farmers experience long-term damage after rain, flooding

Julie Kelly
Julie Kelly's pumpkin patch at Ten Acre Farm in Hillsborough after July's heavy rains.

After this summer’s wet weather, some New Hampshire farmers are facing soil damage and food safety risks that could persist for months or even years. Excessive water can carry diseases harmful to plants and humans alike.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration prohibits selling any crop in which the edible portion came in contact with floodwater. For many farmers in the hard-hit Monadnock region, this means discarding a large portion of their harvest.

Julie Kelly, co-owner of Ten Acre Farm in Hillsborough, can’t sell the majority of her squash crop because it was inundated with floodwater.

“This year is kind of a wash,” she said.

Why floodwater is considered unsafe

While excess water may be colloquially referred to as floodwater, experts make distinctions based on the water’s origins.

Rainwater that saturates fields and drowns crops can be extremely damaging, but it is not technically flooding, according to the FDA. Experts instead often refer to this phenomenon as “ponding.”

“Flooding in this context is when water outside of a grower’s control overflows into their field,” Wendy Johnecheck, a food safety specialist with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, said.

Water that spilled into agricultural fields from the Connecticut River and its tributaries during the July storms was considered floodwater, but the rainwater that pooled in these fields was not.

The FDA cares about these distinctions because the food safety risks differ based on the type of water that submerges crops. Floodwater is unsafe because it can contain upstream runoff, like sewage, heavy metal contaminants and agricultural and industrial chemicals. Microbial pathogens, such as E.coli and salmonella, can live in this water and make someone who eats a crop it touched sick.

Read more about how extreme weather events are affecting farmers' mental health.

Ponding can be extremely damaging, even if it does not carry the same risk of exposure to human pathogens as floodwater does. Crops only exposed to pooled rainwater are legal to sell, but they often can be too damaged for market or destroyed by oversaturation. Ponding can also facilitate the spread of harmful plant pathogens, like phytophthora capisci, a plant disease that ravages crops and can linger in soil for up to ten years.

Heavy rain also eroded soil, according to Julie Davenson, president of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Hampshire. She said the continued precipitation has made many daily farming tasks, like weeding fields and tending to crops, more difficult.

Replanting for the next season

For farmers looking to replant, Johnecheck emphasized the importance of an individual assessment of each farm. She said there is no universal timeline for when it is safe to replant because the water’s composition varies farm to farm.

The New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food says the longer farmers wait to replant, the better, as this allows microbial pathogens to die off. It recommends growers take additional measures to keep the soil safe, like tilling thoroughly, planting cover crops and letting the soil dry out completely.

New Hampshire has a really short growing cycle, so we're pretty much out for the year.
Julie Kelly

While the department says generally the safest route is to wait to replant until next year, different crops carry different risks, so some crops can potentially be replanted sooner than others. The department recommends a few weeks to a month for replanting low-risk crops like beets, eggplant and potatoes, since they are rarely eaten raw.

It recommends one to two months for medium risk crops whose edible portion avoided contact with the polluted water. For high risk crops that touch the contaminated soil, such as leafy greens and radishes, the department urges farmers to wait a minimum of two months or until the next growing season before replanting.

But many local growers won’t have enough time to replant this year, regardless of the crop.

“New Hampshire has a really short growing cycle, so we're pretty much out for the year,” Kelly said.

Some affected crops can be salvaged because of their growing cycles. Johnecheck said some crops had not yet flowered or fruited when they came into contact with the floodwater, so a case-by-case evaluation later in the season may reveal they are safe to consume.

Julie Kelly
Kelly had planted tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, potatoes, onion, herbs and beets on this part of her farm.

Other crops may still be sold because they are not designated for human consumption. Kelly hopes she can sell her surviving pumpkins since they tend to be used as decorations, not food.

The Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Hampshire has been surveying Granite State farmers to learn more about how they handled this year’s destructive weather. Davenson says the continued erratic weather has compounded each event’s effects.

“The impact is significant, and it goes beyond a specific incident,” Davenson said.

Producers across the Connecticut River Valley, in Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut are facing the same struggles.

New Hampshire is getting warmer and wetter as global temperatures rise, which will change agriculture across the state. Johnecheck says this year’s extreme weather serves as a reminder to develop more resilient farming practices.

“The stronger structures we have in place, the better we are going to be able to weather whatever comes our way,” she said.