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Devastated farms tally losses from Western Mass. flooding

Ron and Bernie Smiarowski at their ruined potato field in Northfield, which flooded when the Connecticut River overflowed.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

HATFIELD — The four brothers who run the Teddy C. Smiarowski Farm should be celebrating the centennial anniversary of the Pioneer Valley farm worked by their family for generations. Instead, they are tallying the damage from last week’s flooding, waiting for the water to recede so they can return to the fields and salvage what they can.

The disaster happened quickly on July 10 and was much worse than expected. And for 61-year-old Bernie Smiarowski, one of the brothers, it may be the most devastating he’s ever seen on the 650-acre farm.

“There’s nothing we can do,” Smiarowski said on Tuesday, surveying the sodden potato fields from his truck.

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He estimated that the farm had lost 150 acres worth of potatoes — nearly 25 percent of the crop— and that the damage could top $1 million. Although the heavy rains saturated the soil, the real damage was done when the rising waters from the Connecticut River flooded the fields.

The ruined potato field plants at the Smiarowski Farm.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Three to nine inches of rain fell on the region in the last week, and the river reportedly rose as much as 20 inches in some places.

“It was heartbreaking for farmers, in a matter of a few hours, to see their crops gone for the year ahead,” said state Agriculture Commissioner Ashley Randle, a fifth-generation dairy farmer from South Deerfield.

More than 75 farms suffered damage, and that number is expected to rise, Randle said. At least 2,000 acres of crops have been lost or significantly damaged, she added. Losses so far are estimated at $15 million and rising.

In addition to potatoes, other crops such as corn, tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, and tobacco were affected, Randle said. Pumpkins could be impacted in the fall, she added.

“This isn’t a one-and-done situation,” said state Senator Jo Comerford, a Northampton Democrat. “These farms have had damage that will continue to affect them.”

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Among the concerns are water-borne bacteria and crop disease, as well as the struggle to reenter markets where farmers sell their produce, she said.

At Smiarowski Farm, large swaths of the fields are now a murky brown, the crops either washed away or covered in mud. In lower-lying areas, flood water still stands in massive puddles, and water spreads through rows between the crops.

These farmers have seen this much rain before. In 2011, Hurricane Irene brought 10 inches in some areas, and a 1984 flood brought 8 to 9 inches.

What makes this worse is the timing: Potato farmers were only a week or two away from harvesting. Irene hit after much of the crop had been harvested, and the 1984 flood had been early enough in the season that farmers were able to replant.

But this time, farmers lost crops that they had poured time, money, and labor into all season, only to lose much of it to the storms.

Much of Western Massachusetts looks vibrant and lush after the rain, and some cornfields appear unscathed, but a good portion of the damage is occurring below the surface. It’s a waiting game now, area farmers said, and it will be difficult to gauge the exact financial loss before the harvest season ends in late October.

The Smiarowskis looked at their potato field, which flooded when the Connecticut River overflowed.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Bernie Smiarowksi knows farming comes with risk. “No other occupation deals with Mother Nature and these weather events,” he said.

However, he and other farmers said the work wasn’t always so risky. The last three years have oscillated between very wet or very dry.

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“It could be our worst year ever,” Smiarowski said. “Farming is a gamble. We’ve had three crazy years. We’re bound to have a normal year, right?”

This year’s floods are a blow, but not a fatal one, he hopes. If it continues to rain this summer, though, he’s not so optimistic.

The state is considering offering cash grants to farmers. Private groups also are working with the state to provide resources, and federal loans would be available if the US Department of Agriculture issues a disaster declaration.

However, many farmers are not interested in loans. Smiarowski said that he takes out loans at the start of each season to pay for seed, equipment, and labor, and that the return at harvest is used to pay them back.

What they need now are grants, he said. Otherwise, Smiarowski said, “it’s loans to pay back loans. That just puts us further in debt.”

“Farmers are proud people,” Smiarowski said. “They want to grow their crops, get paid for them, make a decent living, and not ask for money.”

Insurance for farms isn’t common in the area, he said. The only crop that farmers often consider insuring is tobacco, given how easily it is damaged by wind or rain. But that insurance is expensive, well more than $1,000 an acre, Smiarowski said.

For most crops, the only way to receive an insurance check is if the entire field is lost, but that scenario is unlikely given the varied elevations of their fields, the farmer added.

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The next step for many farm workers is to apply fertilizer and spray fungicides to keep the soil as healthy as possible, but with all the standing water, farmers still can’t get in the fields.

Smiarowski said he had been keeping an eye on the radar when last week’s rain was inundating Vermont, which was hit by historic flooding that devastated communities there. He knew much of that water had to come down the Connecticut River through Western Massachusetts, but he didn’t think it would become a crisis.

Besides destroying this season’s crops, flooding brings another danger: plant disease.

Some fields are infected with phytophthora, a root-rotting disease that thrives in wet and humid conditions, Smiarowski said. Flood water can bring that disease to other fields, as well. Although the disease can be treated, it’s difficult to cure and could imperil future crops.

At SWAZ Potato Farms, spread across 5,000 acres in the Pioneer Valley, its owners fear losing customers who were relying on their produce.

The full damage to their potatoes, which are underwater in some areas, won’t be clear until harvest time. When that time comes, farm spokesperson Diane Szawlowski Mullins said, the potatoes might be too moist and break down quickly when they’re shipped out to stores.

It’s hard not to feel demoralized when the harvest was only weeks away, Szawlowski Mullins said. On Tuesday, a kayaker was paddling on top of the fields.

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“When it’s warm, we can irrigate,” she said. “But when it’s raining, there’s nothing we can do.”

She had been “in the middle” when it came to discussions of climate change, unsure of what to believe. But the recent weather has seemed abnormal to her.

“It just feels different,” she said.





Sarah Raza can be reached at sarah.raza@globe.com. Follow her @sarahmraza. Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.