What Organic Farmers Stand To Lose From Hurricane Irma

Flooding poses a unique threat to certified organic farms.

September 8, 2017
hurricanes and organic certification
Bloomberg/Getty

Hurricane Irma has already devastated Barbuda and left over a million people in Puerto Rico without power. Now the formidable hurricane is heading for Florida, where it is expected to hit late Saturday.

While many residents are heading warnings and heading inland and north, in hopes of avoiding the worst of the storm, the state’s food producers are, unfortunately, SOL. Hurricane Irma is poised to destroy $1.2 billion worth of Florida produce, Bloomberg reported earlier this week. While Florida is the 22nd largest state in the union, it represents 10 percent of the country’s farmland that’s dedicated to fresh produce, second only to California.

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And there’s only so much Florida's farmers can do to prepare for the 150-mile-per-hour winds and torrential rains that are expected this weekend. Farmers stand to lose not only the crops in the ground, but produce that’s already harvested but in storage, or awaiting shipment.

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Flooding can mean a total crop loss

The FDA has issued strict warnings for all edible foods, crops, fruits, vegetables: if they are exposed to flood waters they need to be destroyed. Extensive flooding such as we saw in the wake of Harvey earlier this summer could mean total crop loss—a huge blow to farmers' livelihoods, as well as to the larger U.S. agricultural economy.

(Watch this video below to learn about a family that has been farming the same land for generations.)

Andy McDonald, a strawberry farmer, told Bloomberg he feared the worst for the state’s farmers: Irma “will cripple a lot of communities.”

Making matters worse, with the exception of citrus growers, most farmers in Florida simply don’t have access to crop insurance that they can afford, Bloomberg reports. The situation could be worse than the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which also left farmers reeling.

Shawn Peebles, a third-generation organic farmer who runs Peebles Farm in McCrory, Arkansas, which was also hit by flooding, told Rodale's Organic Life they can't get their pumpkins insured in the state of Arkansas, despite trying for many years, so any crop loss is just that: a loss. In his case, after the Harvey flooding, he was contemplating a loss of millions of dollars.

 

"We have nothing to fall back on whatsoever," Peebles said in a phone interview. "It may be possible to save some of the crops. Right now we hope to have 50 percent of potatoes yet. And if we have 50 percent, we will make it. But if we have 100 percent loss... well, then, we're going back to the banks to ask for forgiveness. We've been in the organic business a long time. This is farming, and you expect some loss and you can control it—but you don't expect to see 100 percent. I would have never dreamed I'd see that."

Related: Organic Farms Devastated By Hurricane Harvey Need Your Help

It can also mean a loss of organic certification

Besides the prospect of massive hits to their harvest and operations, organic farmers face another threat—potential loss of certification on flooded fields.

Flooding is hazardous not just because of the damage surging waters pose to life and property, but because of the environmental contaminants it spreads. In addition to the FDA’s strict requirement that all crops that come into contact with flood waters be destroyed, organic farmers have to contact their organic certifier and test to see whether any substances and ingredients banned by USDA Organic standards have been deposited on their land by flood waters.

According to Farmer’s Legal Action Group’s 2016 “Steps to Recovery After A Natural Disaster” report, intended to help farmers recover after a flood, “If a prohibited substance is found on an agricultural product at levels that exceed the organic standard limits, the agricultural product must not be sold as organic.” 

 

In “Impact of Flooding On Organic Food and Fields,” an article prepared for The Institute For Agricultural Policy by Jim Riddle, an Organic Outreach Coordinator for University of Minnesota, “the land could lose its certification if contamination levels in crops continue to exceed 5% of the EPA tolerance.”

While farmers will certainly feel the worst of it, consumers should expect to feel ripple effects at the grocery store as we head into fall and winter—a time when groceries rely heavily on Florida’s winter fruits and vegetables. In addition to a scarcity of Florida-grown oranges, green beans, cucumbers, and squash, if the storm moves inland, Bloomberg notes, it could also damage harvests in Georgia and the Carolinas, including soybeans, cotton, and peanuts.

Seafood is also going to take a hit. According to The New Food Economy, Miami is one of the biggest distribution hubs in the nation—more than half of all of the foreign-fished and -farmed salmon, tilapia, and Mahi come into the U.S. through its ports. The storm, which may knock out electricity and make shipping impossible, stands to spoil tons of seafood.

How To Help

The crowdfunding non-profit Barnraiser is hosting a major crowdfunding campaign for Texas Center for Local Food along with 7 partner organizations to aid in the relief and recovery for farmers and ranchers impacted by the massive disaster caused by Hurricane Harvey. 

And watch this space—we'll add resources for helping Florida farms in need as we learn of them. 

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