Washing away a harvest: Contamination ruins Boulder County crops

Floodwater-exposed crops may be total loss

Water flows over crops at Flatirons Farm.
Photo by Kelly Bevilacqua

This story is part of Our Road to Recovery, our coverage of the 2013 Boulder County floods.

The Martinellis’ field is in surprisingly good shape.

As Lenny Martinelli, co-owner with his wife Sara of Three Leaf Concepts and Three Leaf Farm in Lafayette, walks through his field after the flood, he expresses relief at the number of squash, peppers, pumpkins and even tomatoes that survived floodwaters that reached several feet Sept. 12 and 13. Rows of plants look more or less untouched. It’s too early for Martinelli to estimate what fraction of crops can be saved, but he is at least slightly optimistic.

“Now the hard work is making sure everything is good to eat,” he says.

Due to potential pathogens and contamination in the floodwater, many farmers with flooded property are still uncertain if their fall harvest can safely be consumed. Farmers are waiting for word from a government agency to help make that decision.

Ron Carleton, the deputy commissioner for the Colorado Department of Agriculture, says the agency won’t be able to say right away.

“Making any assessments or any recommendations is going to have to wait until the floodwaters have receded and there’s been an opportunity to really assess what damage has occurred and what problems might exist,” he says. “And I think it’s going to take a few weeks to get to that point.”

He suggests the decision about whether crops are salvageable could be left up to the farmer.

“That’s probably going to have to be a case-by-case assessment by each producer, working with their [Farm Service Agency] office and [National Resource Defense Council] office in terms of, what do we have and is it salvageable?” he says.

But research forecasts bad news for farms across the county: There’s no saving crops exposed directly to floodwater. A 2012 fact sheet from Ohio State University predicts the exact scenario that most Boulder County farms face: It has a whole heading for “When edible portions of crops come into direct contact with floodwater.” Under that heading are some discouraging bullet points:

“The crop is adulterated and should not enter the human or animal food chains.

“There is no known or accepted method to recondition the edible crop to assure human food safety.

“Crop must be disposed of and kept separate from crops that will enter the food chain.

“This applies to ALL crops (grown above or below ground, with durable rind, grains and nuts).”

The fact sheet goes on to warn against using the contaminated crops in any way, even in compost. It warns that “floodwaters contain contaminants such as chemicals, heavy metals, molds, bacteria, sewage, human pathogens and fungi.”

If food cannot be eaten directly from the farm, Amy Scott, owner of 63rd Street Farm with her husband Brian Scott, wonders if they can require customers to cook the potentially harmful food, which might kill off any pathogens.

“We could finish our CSA with a mandatory cooking of all vegetables, but I don’t even know if that’s safe,” says Amy Scott. “Everybody’s working hard — the USDA is working with the extension offices and the health department right now, to figure out what solutions there might be. So that’s the big question right now.”

The OSU document says food that made direct contact with floodwater “must be disposed of.” A document from the University of Minnesota offers the option of cooking food, but warns, “The most conservative course of action would be to discard all produce that has been potentially contaminated by flood waters.”

The Minnesota document says produce must be washed thoroughly and cooked to 165 F. But while cooking kills bacteria, it will not remove chemicals.

Amy Scott estimates that 63rd Street Farms, which as of last Monday still sat under about a foot of water, lost about $25,000 worth of produce. For the Scotts, most of the loss gets pushed onto the members of their CSA, who will receive less food for the remainder of the season. Lenny Martinelli estimates that Three Leaf Farms lost $12,000 to $15,000.

Lenny Martinelli surveys the new edge of his property, where Coal Creek has carved into his land. | Photo by Steve Weishampel

Scott Hoffenberg, manager of Flatirons Farm on 7th Street and University Avenue, is less fortunate. His farm was completely inundated by swift overflow from Gregory Creek. Soil from the farm is mixed into the mud from the runoff in the middle of 7th Street. Water poured from the back of the property over the front retaining wall like a small waterfall. His business depends almost entirely on direct sales through a farm stand, so the farm’s loss rests solely on him and his family unless a government entity provides crop insurance.

“I think I’m still in a state of shock,” Hoffenberg says. “The last three days, I think I’ve had combined about four hours of horizontal time, maybe two of shut-eye. Once I get a good night’s sleep I think I’ll be able to collect my thoughts a little better. If there’s any soil left, it’s under a foot of sediment that came down the canyon. I dug down about eight inches last night and found a turnip below it. At this point, all of those crops are pretty much wasted.”

Nobody is really certain what was in the floodwater, especially considering that several creeks flooded. Neither the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District nor the Boulder County Public Health office could say what farmers should do, and the CSU Extension office did not respond to requests for interviews.

“We could speculate on a lot of things, but at this point, I’m trying to ensure that what I’m telling folks is based in fact,” says Sean Cronin, executive director of the water conservancy district. “And not feeding the rumor mills that are going around.”

He points out that if water treatment plants were compromised, chlorine and other disinfectants are likely to be in the water, but the concentration of any contaminants is unknown. He says he’s hoping measurements will be taken of the floodwater to determine what chemicals it contains.

For the Martinellis, saving crops is important, but secondary. Lenny Martinelli describes the trying experience evacuating his family’s livestock, including temporarily housing nine goats in the family’s garage in Old Town Lafayette. They took their nine horses to a farm to the north, only to retrieve them when that farm flooded and go searching, door to door, for a stranger willing to take in the horses. And they’re looking ahead, ready to relocate the farm’s next farm-to-table dinner — if, that is, they have anything they can serve.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

This story is part of Our Road to Recovery, our coverage of the 2013 Boulder County floods.