Just weeks ago, drought required Kevin Bassette to irrigate rows of lettuce, radishes, kale, Chinese cabbage and pickling cucumbers his family grows in Glastonbury on the Connecticut River’s fertile floodplain.
He didn’t complain. Given a choice of drought or deluge, Bassette would opt for drought. “I prefer bone dry,” he said. “You can always add water. You can’t take it away.”
On Monday, his family hosted Gov. Ned Lamont by silty flood waters that spilled from the river, forming a vast pond. Still visible were parallel rows of drowned vegetables. On the far side, waters lapped at the edge of waist-high sweet corn plants, some ready for picking.
The governor led a contingent of state and federal officials who described last week’s torrential rains as a consequence of climate change that has complicated Connecticut agriculture with one extreme after another.
“In February, we had 50-degree weather. And the next day we had minus-10-degree weather,” said Bryan P. Hurlburt, the commissioner of agriculture. “In May, we had subfreezing for many hours across the state. And in June, we had droughts. And in July, we have floods.”
“What the hell is going on here?” Lamont said, noting the local flooding comes after Canadian wildfires have affected air quality in a broad swath of the U.S.
Water still oozed from the ground where Lamont and Hurlburt addressed reporters with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, state lawmakers, representatives of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the Small Business Administration and agriculture advocates.
For the second time in three months, they were outlining plans for seeking federal relief, as well as offering state grants available to plan for how to make communities more resilient to climate change. Hurlburt said he has yet to get through a growing season without coordinating an application for federal agricultural assistance due to weather losses.
The untimely frost in May caused estimated losses of $8.45 million, with 1,077 impacted acres of crops including apples, peaches, grapes, blueberries, strawberries and Christmas trees, as well as honeybee queens. Hurlburt said his “back of the envelope estimate” is that the recent flooding affected about 2,000 acres, double the the frost losses.
Agriculture generates $4 billion annually for the Connecticut economy and employs 22,000, mostly at small farms like the one Lamont visited Monday, Hurlburt said.
Killam & Bassette Farmstead is off Water Road, the scenic byway that leads to the river and America’s oldest continuously operated ferry. Closed until the flooding subsides, the ferry normally offers a four-minute ride connecting Glastonbury with historic farm lands in Rocky Hill and Wethersfield.
Most of the recent agricultural damage came in the Connecticut River Valley, where centuries of flooding have deposited silt, replenishing the land. As floodplain, the land survives for agriculture without pressures from commercial or residential development. Much of it lies in the busy I-91 corridor.
Larson lives in the northern end of East Hartford, a densely settled community best known as home of an industrial giant, Pratt & Whitney. But his neighbor is D.J. Burnham, the latest generation of farmers to till about 200 acres of land, mostly on floodplain across the town line in South Windsor.
“His family has been farming the same piece of property along the Connecticut River since the 1640s,” Larson said. “They lost more than 160 acres to flooding. I can see it outside of my window, where I’ve been their neighbor for 44 years.”
Burnham said the historical cycles of flooding left land that is free of rocks and dense with clay that holds groundwater in the dry times. “When the weather cooperates, its great farmland,” Burnham said.
Billy Collins, whose family farms Fair Weather Acres across the river in Rocky Hill, was less sanguine about the benefits of farming a floodplain. He attended the press conference with before-and-after pictures of a field rich with green beans two weeks ago and now a little more than mud.
One of his fields lays in a bend of the river, surrounded on three sides. It all was under water in recent days, making the river more enemy than ally.
“It takes away more than it gives,” Collins said. “We lose soil to erosion. Now we lose crops.”
While plenty of rain fell directly on their farms over the weekend, the river rose earlier. Upstream rains swelled a river that drains a watershed of 11,250 square miles in Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut on its way to Long Island Sound.
Burnham said there is neither time nor money to plant a new crop of sweet corn, a crop that typically ripens and produces cash from the Fourth of July until Labor day.