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How a local farm recovers from flood: Grow Food Northampton gardeners work to revive land that has been submerged

By Pat James
For the Daily Hampshire Gazette
Published July 21, 2023

Song Sparrow Farm, Straw Hat Farm and the GFN Organic Community Garden – Photo by Joe Brooks-Kahn

The flood. I head to the Grow Food Northampton Community Farm with some items for the Organic Community Garden garden shed, but I’m stopped at the bridge on Meadow Street by rising water from the Mill River. Neighbors gather and urge a drifting dumpster to learn to dog paddle. I turn my car around and get to the garden from the other side, pull on a pair of knee-high yard-sale rain boots, and wade into the community garden, most of which is under water.

My wife Karin’s plot is submerged. The small farms on the south parcel of the Community Farm are under five feet of rushing water. Toni Hall of Song Sparrow Farm wades out of chest deep water before the current can sweep them away. By the time I wade to the community garden shed, my boots are full of water. We’re mostly quiet as we watch the water rise until the Northampton Fire Department tells us to get to higher ground.

GFN Community Farm road

Several hours later the water recedes and the sun peeks out. The farms and community garden plots look fine, but we know they are not.

Day two. We know it’s bad, but we don’t know how bad. GFN staff members gather at a picnic table in the community garden. We’re all fielding questions from farmers and gardeners about what to do, sorting suggestions about how to proceed, and sharing links to articles about agricultural flood recovery from various local, state, federal, academic and commercial entities. Many of the articles and guidelines contradict one another and leave us feeling overwhelmed and uncertain.

As we conduct further research, we are having all the big emotions: we worry with the farmers who lease farmland on our Community Farm, grieve with our community gardeners, and mourn for the land itself. We all desire quick answers, easy solutions, and a fast return to normal, yet we know that’s not how crises work. Still, we manage to focus and plan.

That afternoon, we host our first work party, and in blazing heat and humidity, over 20 community gardeners, neighbors and friends of Grow Food Northampton start cleaning up the ravages of the floodwaters. One volunteer expresses gratitude that the recent rain cleared the air of smoke from the Canadian wildfires.

Courtney Whitley, owner or Ras Farm explains his crop loss to elected officials

Day three. We walk the GFN Community Farm with local and state elected and governmental officials, media folks, and the commissioner and deputy commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. We explain the scope of the flood and survey the damage and loss together. Mumat Aweys translates for the New Family Community Farming Cooperative, a collective of Somali Bantu farmers. Refugees from Somalia, they grow a variety of crops on the GFN Community Farm for other underrepresented communities. Most of their corn was submerged. Their neighbor, Courtney Whitley of Ras Farm, laments his lost eggplant crop, the best he’s produced in years and the one he relied on to bring in the bulk of his farming income. Farmers Suna Turgay and Stacia Potter of Flowerwork Farm, Andrea Dustin of Straw Hat Farm, and Toni Hall of Song Sparrow Farm, all of whom farm on GFN’s Community Farm, tell the officials about their crop loss and feelings of devastation. On such a clear, hot day, it’s again difficult to reconcile the beauty of our farm with the knowledge of so much loss.

And it’s painful to think that, in the wake of the deluge a few days earlier, the normally placid and clear Mill River has gathered up septic system overflow; residue from chemically-treated lawns, fields and oil-stained parking lots; excreta from livestock and wild animals; debris from tipped dumpsters; and waste from too many sources to name, and left it on this land. And it’s not just crops and livelihoods that are damaged: our carefully tended soil microbiome, the basis of organic growing, has been compromised and must be nurtured back to balance and health.

Our friends at the Northampton Community Garden on Burts Pit Road offer garden plots to some of our displaced gardeners. Led by one of those gardeners, they organize produce donations to groups who will not receive produce from the GFN Giving Garden for the rest of the season. River Valley Co-op and Berkshire Naturals offer us donations of a multitude of snacks and beverages for our almost-daily work parties that are toiling to help clean the Community Farm. USA Recycling donates two dumpsters to our clean-up efforts. So much detritus has washed up on the farm.

Day four. Our second work party brings more volunteers from throughout the community, including a large group of teens from the Shefa program at Abundance Farm. It seems like the more we clean up, the more there is to clean up: an upended farm shed; a scramble of tarps and row covers in trees along the river; a pump in the river; a little ceramic house from someone’s Christmas village; logs; fencing tangled with irrigation lines, a small plastic dump truck from a sandbox somewhere upstream.

Day five. That morning’s work party is canceled due to the threat of thunderstorms that don’t materialize. By mid-afternoon, a group of GFN farmers and staff gather on the Community Farm to hear recommendations from Eric Stenfors from the Produce Safety Division of the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture Resources. Our sunlit community garden and small farms appear to be thriving: a strange juxtaposition to the information we’re getting from Eric. None of the flood-affected crops can be salvaged, and must either be cut and removed, or tilled in. Wear gloves as we work, he suggests. Wash hands often. Consider wearing a mask. Plant again next year. And there’s a scrap of good news: mulch that cannot be used by food growers can be used by Flowerwork Farm for their cut flower business. “Just don’t eat the flowers,” he quips.

Day Six. Saturday produces the largest work party yet, with over three dozen volunteers and many members of GFN’s staff, we’re beginning to see progress. The upended shed at Straw Hat Farm is righted and returned to where it used to stand before floodwaters swept it away. Bags and bags and bags of debris are tossed into the donated dumpsters. During breaks, volunteers snack on the donated treats. We’ve raised a promising amount of money for farmers, but still not enough to see them through the year and into next season.

Day Seven. Sunday is a day of enforced rest with a tornado watch and another deluge of rain that pushes the Mill River over its banks again. Luckily, this time, the flooding is less extensive, but our morale is affected as the more flooding triggers stress and trauma from the devastation just six days earlier. Still, we are buoyed when we learn that Haydenville Congregational is among several area churches that have taken special offerings to support GFN farmers and that our community loves and supports us.

Day Eight. GFN staff reconvenes at our office because smoke from the Canadian wildfires has made outdoor work dangerous. We’re beginning to understand that recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. And we know that true recovery is not just about returning to how things were, but growing our Community Farm’s resilience to withstand the future disasters that climate change will bring. We double down on our commitment to GFN’s mission to create a just and resilient local food system that nourishes our community and protects and enriches the earth.

Even when it gets that much harder.

Pat James is the Manager of the Grow Food Northampton Organic Community Garden.

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