High water and high stakes

Mimi Yanus, owner of Mimi\'s Garden, at her Farmers\' Market booth
Susan France

Flood’s shadow hangs over farmers’ market, but vendors hope for strong season

The flood that hit Colorado in 2013 couldn’t have come at a worse time for many farmers. In the middle of September, many fruits and vegetables are near ripe and ready for harvest, leaving them vulnerable to damage from flood waters and the pollutants in the water. Some farms had to declare the 2013 harvest a total loss, as an advisory from the Food and Drug Administration alerted that crops are “adulterated” if the edible portion directly touches floodwater.

It’s been several months, but a new year doesn’t mean a clean slate. As the Boulder County Farmers’ Markets gear up for the 2014 season — the markets open in downtown Boulder and at the Boulder County Fairgrounds in Longmont April 5 — the legacy of the flood lingers as silt covers topsoil and some creeks continue to run high. Farms around the county have pursued various ways to mitigate 2013’s damage, but the farmers’ market season is shaping up to be at least somewhat affected by last year’s flooding, whether the public can see it or not.

“This flood issue is really invisible to the community right now,” says Brian Coppom, the executive director of the farmers’ market. “This is going to be a real long term issue for us. The thing that’s difficult for us at the market is seeing how little support the small farmers in this county get when things like this happen. Large farmers who have commodity crops are much more likely to get some kind of assistance because they fall under a different set of regulations. Small, local farmers are pretty much left handling it with their own resources.”

Peter Volz is determined, though, not to let his farm’s production suffer. The founder and owner of Oxford Gardens farm in Boulder, Volz took quick action after the flood to ensure he’d keep turning out produce.

“When we lost soil last fall, we quickly leased another section of land from a neighbor to make up for the loss,” Volz says in an email. Using that additional land should cover for his farm’s damage.

“We will not lose any net production in the 2014 season,” he says. He estimates 25 percent of the farm’s topsoil was lost in the flood, and of that, two-thirds is still being restored and will not be planted until late May or early June.

Dew Farms in Longmont also saw damage from flooding, farmer Aaron Dew says, but adds he’s thankful it wasn’t worse.

“This flood is making me stronger,” he says. “For me this is — it’s not a breaking point.”

Dew says he’ll be focusing on rewarding Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program members this season rather than the farmers’ market.

“I’m not going to be doing the market until later on because I’m concentrating on my CSAs,” he says. “I’m putting everything I’ve got into the farm again to make it better.”

Frustration and disappointment are evident in Boulder County farmers’ voices when they discuss discarding their crops from last year, as their hard work had to be thrown out. For Lenny Martinelli, co-owner of Three Leaf Concepts and Three Leaf Farm in Lafayette, the disappointment far outweighed the monetary loss.

“We pitched such beautiful food,”

Martinelli says. “We had just gotten our soils a little better and were really seeing improvement from the year before. To not be able to harvest all the work we did was a bit disheartening.”

Just about everything grown around Boulder fell under the FDA’s “adulterated” label. If flood water passed over the plant, every fruit on the vine must be discarded — not even used for compost, the FDA warned farmers. All root plants and leafy greens were similarly adulterated, and given the massive amounts of water in the flood, stalk-growers like tomatoes were at risk as well.

Coppom says the flood has had at least two secondary effects, as well. The network of irrigation ditches, called laterals, upon which farmers rely has been altered and in some cases destroyed, he says.

“There is hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars of work that has to go on to rebuild those laterals,” he says. “A lot of farmers, they plow ahead, pun intended, but there’s some question if they can take advantage of all the water if the ditch system is not complete.”

The other issue is sand, gravel and silt deposited onto farms. Besides cleanup, Coppom says organic farms face a complication.

“A lot of farmers are looking at having to rebuild their topsoil, but if you’re an organic farmer and this debris from an unknown location is deposited on your land, what does that mean?” he asks.

Yet, this year, Dew gave away CSA memberships to people affected by flooding, which he calls “our way of giving back to the community.” Ultimately, he says, his issues pale in comparison to others.

“I’m lucky I didn’t lose my house,” Dew says. “I can rebuild the farm. I spent a day repacking wheel bearings because they rusted out, but a lot of people who lost their homes, they didn’t even have flood insurance.”

In a way, his biggest concern for this year’s farmers’ market is good news. Flood recovery is going well — well enough that he’s got other things on his mind.

“For me, the biggest thing is, I’m not going to be selling my soaps at the market,” he says. Changes to regulations at the BCFM will prevent him from selling his popular soaps, made with loofah (or luffa) plants grown on his farms. He says Dew Farms will sell its soaps wholesale since they won’t be available at the farmers’ market.

A few farms won’t be selling at the markets, Coppom says, and Sisters’ Pantry in Lyons will not participate after suffering flood damage. But the markets will welcome new farms as well, he says.

Martinelli raised the possibility of more flooding as waterways continue to run high and will soon have to accommodate snowmelt. He says the creek that runs through Three Leaf Farm is higher than usual, and he’s making plans to place sandbags and prevent further flooding.

“Compared to the past three or four years, it’s about, I’d say, three times more volume right now,” he says, adding, “There is a good amount of water. Last year it was a trickle. Now it’s almost a swimming pool out there.”

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