Dissatisfaction with farm disaster benefits floats up with Irene

Shelly Oechsler managed a touch of humor offering a photo of fields on her family’s 400-acre Botticello Farms two days after tropical storm Irene struck.

“What you are looking at is some of our peppers,” she said in an email. “If you were a scuba diver, that is.”

Just about all 400 acres, most of which are in Glastonbury, wound up under the waters of the double-edged agricultural sword of the Connecticut River. It provides unparalleled soil for farming most of the time, but is devastating when it floods.

“One hundred percent loss,” Oechsler said of the farm’s mainly fall crops–pumpkins, squash, tomatoes, corn, peppers and more–which they are now trying to purchase elsewhere to keep their farm stand going.

But the overflow of the river during Irene, made worse by last week’s three days of downpours, is only part of the failure farmers like Oechsler say they’re feeling.

Many complain that crop insurance and other loss coverage programs are costly, with payout restrictions that often result in no benefits, and that disaster assistance–if they can even qualify–is mostly in the form of loans.

“Borrowing to pay today’s debts based on the potential of reaping a successful harvest next year is not a good bet if we plan on keeping the farm,” Oechsler said, noting this was their fourth bad year in a row. “I understand the concept of government can’t just be giving people money, but it can bail out the banks and bailout Chrysler and those people. What about your food source?”

Chris Bassette, who with her husband Kevin farm about 85 acres of mixed vegetables along the river in South Glastonbury at their Killam & Bassette farmstead, had eight acres of corn blown down by Irene. Before they could salvage it, 18 acres, including the corn, flooded and last week’s rain rendered what’s left susceptible to disease and mold. They’ve lost one-third to one-half of their overall produce and both Bassettes are considering finding non-farm jobs over the winter.

But a loan? “How much money can you borrow?” asked Bassette who said the farm has had at least one loss claim each of the last eight years. “We borrowed a lot this year to start up; borrowed against another farm loan that we had. How much do you want to go in debt?”

The core of many farmers’ complaints is federal crop insurance, which they feel is geared towards commodity farmers in the Midwest, not the small farms of Connecticut that typically operate on tight margins using the profits from one growing season to pay for seed and other operational costs the next. Crop insurance, while county specific, only covers a handful of crops in Connecticut: tobacco, nursery plants, sweet and field corn, apples, some peaches and potatoes. It does not cover the vast array of vegetables and fruit grown by most of the state’s farmers.

For those crops, farmers can purchase protection through the Noninsured Assistance Program, NAP. But many like Botticello and Killam & Bassette have chosen to cover only their most valuable crops. And some, like Patrick Horan of Waldingfield Farm in Washington Depot, go without because of rising premium costs and the high percentage losses need to reach to trigger payouts.

“Financing follows the bigger folks first, then we little farms gets the scraps,” said Horan, who specializes in heirloom tomatoes, 60 percent of which he said were ruined by the recent rains. He said he’ll file paperwork for assistance, “but I’m not really in the mood to borrow money just to owe it back.”

Even insurers concede the need to fill gaps in crop coverage in Connecticut, but point out not too many years ago, about the only thing you could insure was tobacco. “We are constantly working with officials to get crop insurance expanded,” said James Putnam, executive vice president of Farm Credit East in Enfield. He said a pilot program called Adjusted Gross Revenue, which bundles crops for coverage, has had few takers because of its requirement for five years of detailed records.

How insurance coverage links to disaster assistance is another bone of contention many farmers have with the system. The presidential disaster declaration, like the one in place now in Connecticut, does not cover crops. It covers losses to property, equipment, structures and certain perennial plants like fruit trees and grapevines–but not the fruit on them–and it provides low interest loans only.

Disaster assistance for crops requires something known as a “secretarial designation.” The U.S. secretary of agriculture makes that determination based on loss data compiled by county. The data for Connecticut as a result of Irene is being collated by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency Connecticut office and is expected to be turned over to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy this week so he can make the official request to Washington.

If approved, it provides loans for crop losses, if other criteria are met including whether a farmer’s credit is good enough to qualify for a loan from a private lending institution instead. It also can provide a cash payment known as Supplemental Revenue Assistance, SURE, but only to farmers who are insured and/or covered by NAP on all of their crops.

Michele Collins, whose husband’s family owns Fair Weather Acres in Rocky Hill, the largest green bean grower in New England, said they used to buy crop insurance but stopped because the loss threshold was so high. Irene flooded 250 of their 437 planted acres, killing more than $800,000 in green beans and pumpkins. But loss calculation formulas mean they are unlikely to receive any federal assistance.

“We probably won’t do wholesale farming next year,” said Collins who expects the family will sell off equipment to pay existing loans. “I don’t know what we can do,” she said.

Federal and state agriculture officials bristle at the notion that policies may be failing farmers in Connecticut.

“No, not at all,” said Rosemary Edwards, program specialist at the Connecticut FSA. “NAP, risk management insurance–it’s not out to give you a profit. It’s out to cover expenses so you can plant again next year.”

Executive Director Marsha Jetté said the low interest loans “give them a another tool for them to recover.”

State Agriculture Commissioner Steven Reviczky said he realized the insurance issue is difficult for some farmers. “We’re always tweaking it trying to get it to meet the current situation in agriculture that we have here in the Northeast,” he said. “There’s no simple answer here. Is it fair to those people who make all the right steps and take the necessary precautions to have  a major payout  to those who don’t?

“We’re going do whatever it is we can do to insure as much assistance is available from the government,” he said. “But it’s not to make everybody whole”

The full assessment of farm losses is likely to take some time So far, indications are the apple crop will be off 10 to 12 percent. The heaviest losses appear to be in the Connecticut and Farmington River valleys, but crops that handle rain badly – tomatoes, summer squash and greens – were destroyed everywhere. Some farmers still can’t get into muddy fields see damage. Others won’t be able to make final tallies until harvest ends late in October.

Farm Service Agency county offices say they’re getting damage calls from people they never hear from. And they note that collateral damage and costs could go clear through the winter into next season due to things like silt-covered hayfields that won’t be able to be planted next season. Loss of power destroyed silage for animals. Feed will now have to be purchased at additional expense. Finding replacement crops for farm stands is increasingly difficult with growers throughout the Northeast also facing flood-related crop loss. Saturated crops in fields are requiring additional anti-disease treatment. More than a few farmers have had to contend with equipment swallowed up by mud.

That said, farmers are an optimistic bunch who readily admit they farm because they love it and realize the vicissitudes of nature come with the territory. Reviczky said things could have been worse. “I don’t want people to lose sight of the fact that there will still be Connecticut-grown fruits and vegetables,” he said. “On the bright side, the demand for locally-grown has never been better.”