Blizzard delivers crushing blow to Connecticut agriculture

Patti Popp of Sport Hill Farm in Easton was at least managing to laugh a bit as she described the collapsed hoop house.

“It’s mess,” she said. “I went inside praying it didn’t fall on me.”

Sport Hill farm 1

The hoop house at Sport Hill Farm collapsed under the weight of snow.

Popp is among Connecticut farmers who for about the half-dozenth time in less than three years are taking stock of major weather-induced damage. This time hoop houses and high tunnels like Popp’s — made from heavy duty plastic over metal ribbing — took the brunt of last week’s blizzard.

The toll, while incomplete, is already well beyond 100 structures collapsed or seriously damaged.

“It’s everywhere,” said Bob Heffernan, executive director of the Connecticut Greenhouse Growers Association. His members are largely non-food growers and at $1.1 billion account for half the agriculture industry in Connecticut, representing 3,000 businesses and 48,000 employees. “The issues for some of these people are that they can’t even get there yet to actually see the damage. It’s very dangerous.”

But the fallout from storm damage goes beyond the structures to the plants and the production processes to grow them. With the local food movement entrenched in Connecticut and a number of farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture programs running year round, indoor growing has become increasingly popular through the winter. The structures are also used for what’s known as season extension — the ability to add a month or two on each end of the season by growing indoors.

“It’s good for us when you’re trying to make a living off of farming,” said Popp who had expected to be able to sell arugula, mustard greens and beets at the winter Westport famers’ market from her now-destroyed 96-by-30 foot hoop house. “We want to be able to have the revenue.”

For David and Ty Zemelsky of Star Light Gardens in Durham, the storm damage was even more catastrophic. They lost five of their six greenhouses, which constitute the bulk of their year-round greens operation and a way for them to get a head start on their summer tomato crop.

“We’re devastated,” David said. “This is like a family member dying, except it’s like five of them dying.”

In the greenhouse industry, hoop houses and other structures are used to overwinter nursery plants for spring and to propagate early plants, many of which were due to be started soon.

“We had plant deliveries scheduled for this week. They would have been coming in three days,” said Joe Duncan of the Salem Herbfarm, which lost a 90-by-60 foot green house that would have handled nearly two-thirds of his herb, annual and perennial production. “It puts us back five or six weeks. Plants normally start growing right now. We’ll have to skip that and then buy them in.

“This will ripple through the whole year.”

Prior to the blizzard, the state’s farming industry had suffered ongoing indignities since 2009 from prolonged rain; prolonged drought; storms Irene, Sandy and the October 2011 snowstorm; and two winters ago a similar snow situation. A series of closely timed snowstorms resulted in as much snow as the blizzard. That snow destroyed or damaged some 511 farm structures according to state Agriculture Commissioner Steven Reviczky.

But Reviczky is not concerned that this year’s snow repeat may send farmers back to the more traditional seasonal growing. “I’m more concerned that this is like the new normal,” he said. “Am I concerned it might turn some people away?Yeah. I’m concerned about also trying to harden our agricultural assets.”

Reviczky also pointed out that the Governor’s Council for Agricultural Development, which he chairs, will have among its first set of recommendations due for release soon, a call for even more year-round agriculture.

“These types of events should give us all a little pause and figure out whether the infrastructure we have is adequate.”

What many farmers don’t have for a blizzard like this and its specific sort of destruction is a financial backstop. Hoop houses and high tunnels, unlike more traditional glass greenhouses, are generally considered temporary structures and therefore not insurable.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency Connecticut office is compiling data on farm damage from the blizzard and expects to use it to request a disaster declaration. But at best it will trigger low interest loans to cover losses to structures, property and equipment – and that’s only if the farmer doesn’t qualify for a commercial loan.

While farmers tend to be loath to get loans, Kerry Taylor of Provider Farm, in the first year of farming their location in Salem, said she and her husband might have to consider it. One of their two structures collapsed — a 30-by-72 foot hoop house that handles all their seedling growth.

“That season is coming very soon,” Taylor said. “We’re not really sure how we’re going to get that going. We might have to contract out early stuff.”

But give up on year-round farming?

“I’m certainly concerned about climate change. I guess as things get more dramatic, we’re just going to have to build houses as tight as we can.

“I’m not inclined to stop year round. I would refine it,” Taylor said.

Grow Hartford‘s one high tunnel as part of its farm in the Hartford Food System is now nearly flat on the ground with salad greens and spinach it was supplying to area restaurants still inside. Farm manager Rodger Phillips is concerned about what it will mean for the growing season ahead.

Grow Hartford

Grow Hartford’s one high tunnel collapsed over its crop of salad greens.

“One of main things it’s going to alter is our crop plan,” said Phillips, who normally starts early carrots in a few weeks. But with no insurance, the question is how soon the high tunnel can be repaired or replaced. “If we can’t get it fixed in time for spring, we’ll at least have something in place for fall.”

Stacia Monahan considers herself lucky even though Stone Gardens, which she and her husband farm in Shelton, got 40 inches of snow. It took until Tuesday for them to even get to their 26-by-96 foot high tunnel planted with Asian greens due to be picked in late February or early March. But when they did, they found the tunnel had only partially collapsed and some of those greens may be salvageable for their winter CSA and farmers’ markets.

Monahan is kicking herself a bit for not firing up the furnace in the high tunnel before the storm — a common, though expensive, tactic some farmers use to keep snow off their plastic structures.

Even so, there have been many reports that the intensity of the storm was too much even for that. “We knew the snow was coming,” she said. “If we didn’t have so much so fast, we could have saved it.”

But give up on all-season operation? Not Monahan nor Patti Popp at Sport Hill.

“I don’t’ throw in the towel,” Popp said. “I have to rebuild it. I was not expecting it. Life throws you curveballs.

“It’s farming. It is what it is.”


Stone Gardens

The damage at Stone Gardens in Shelton.