Looking out across the neatly plowed fields of Maple Downs Farm, it’s hard for owner David Lloyd to recall his initial thoughts about ever growing crops again after his farm was ravaged by flooding from Tropical Storm Irene.
Late last summer, the Schoharie Creek swept across his land, taking nearly four dozen cattle, more than a year’s worth of feed and all of the crops he was hoping to sell.
When the water receded, his farm was a wasteland littered with all of the debris the raging creek had scoured from upstream: old tires, industrial fuel tanks and gravel. The Schoharie carried in entire buildings, haphazardly dropping them as the water began to recede.
“Some of them we had to dismantle,” he recalled. “A couple of them we moved back to where they came from.”
There were some immediate concerns that the toxic floodwater — a fetid porridge of fuel and assorted chemicals picked up by the creek as it swept through area homes and businesses — might contaminate the soil. And no one knew for certain what changes the 500-year flood would have on growing in the once-fertile Schoharie Valley.
But as spring takes hold, many are finding last year’s flooding didn’t have as much of a long-term impact as they had feared. Some are saying they’re not seeing any appreciable difference in the farming conditions from before the storm.
“Really, all the challenges we’re facing are all the normal challenges that come with farming,” said Jacob Hooper, one of the operators at Barber’s Farm in Middleburgh, which lost nearly all 177 acres of its crops during the flood.
Hooper said the farm has already planted corn, peas, beets and Swiss chard. This is in part because of the overwhelming show of support he and other farmers got during the recovery effort last fall.
The farm was among a dozen in Schoharie County to share a total of $207,950 distributed under the state Agricultural and Community Recovery Fund. With $58,000 in grant funding, the farm was able to clear debris, repair fields scoured by the creek, and plant cover crops to start the recovery.
Now the farm’s greenhouses are full and Hooper is preparing to harvest his first cutting of rye straw. He said the farm still has some land that is unusable due to erosion or sediment deposits, but the bulk of the fields have been restored.
“We’re basically on a normal schedule,” he said. “Everything is trucking along as normal.”
This is the general sentiment among valley farmers, said Stephen Hoerz, the district manager for the Schoharie County Soil & Water Conservation District. The temperate weather allowed many farmers to repair flood damage through the fall and winter.
“Things seem to have turned out pretty well compared to how we thought it would be,” he said. “It’s kind of remarkable considering how it was last fall.”
For instance, Hoerz said, there was a concern the ruined corn crops flattened by the flooding wouldn’t break down over the winter and would make tilling more difficult. Instead, the mild winter helped vegetation rot, meaning the old corn posed hardly any problems.
There are some lingering issues. While contamination from the creek either evaporated or left no detectable impact on the soil, the pH of some farmland changed as a result of soil displacement. The flood also led to increased soil compaction. The more-compacted soil meant some farmers had to till fields several times over to prepare for seeding.
Lloyd saw both problems at Maple Downs, where many of his fields were submerged under more than 8 feet of water. Extra tilling has meant more in fuel costs.
“We’re having to do twice the tillage work to get things in decent shape compared to a normal year,” he said. “It’s taking double the fuel.”
The compacted soil could also have an impact on productivity. If the soil is too densely packed, roots won’t grow deep enough to tap ground moisture during the drier months.
“You don’t get a good root structure to help plants to stand,” Lloyd said.
Changes in the soil also hurt financially. Lloyd needed to use more fertilizer to adjust the soil chemistry in some of the flooded areas.
“But things are looking 100 percent better than they did last September,” he said.
In neighboring Montgomery County, the largest obstacle farmers have faced is the overwhelming amount of sediment and debris left by the flood. County Soil and Water Conservation District Director Corey Nellis said some farmers needed to remove more than 30,000 cubic yards of debris — a Herculean task they never would have completed without $228,000 from the state’s recovery fund.
“If the government didn’t put that money out last year, these fields would have been abandoned,” he said. “In some places, we had rocks the size of basketballs that covered 30 acres.”
Marty Navojosky is among the farmers still looking for help to clear his fields. Part of his 248-acre farm on the Schoharie acted like a sieve during the flood, catching just about anything that was being propelled down the raging creek.
State officials gave Navojosky $34,500 to clean up his property, but that was only enough to start. His land near the creek remains covered with towering piles of debris that include drums of oil and crushed buildings with asbestos siding.
“All types of hazardous waste,” he said. “It’s buried inside the piles.”
Navojosky, who bought the farm to raise beef cattle in 2010, can now use only a fraction of his land. He estimates the rest of the cleanup will cost around $500,000 and knows he’ll never be able to finish it without additional funding he’s applied for through the federal government.
“It’s so enormous,” he said. “It’s beyond what an individual could ever take care of himself.”
There are also some issues farmers might not realize until later in the growing season. Nellis said there’s a distinct possibility so-called volunteer crops sprouting from the fields not harvested after the floods last year could bedevil the ones planted this spring.
In most cases, farmers simply ground up the flood-damaged plants and then tilled them into the land. Seeds from these crops were not dried properly and would likely be inferior to ones being sown in the spring.
If the old crops reseed, the inferior plants could start growing outside of the normal rows and usurp some of the nutrients from the intended crops. Their genetic resistance to conventional weed killers will also make it tough for farmers to easily eradicate them.
“It definitely complicates things a little bit,” Nellis said.