After the Deluge: Farmers Emerge from the 2013 Flood

by Elaine Lipson

Farmers, especially organic farmers, have faith in the predictability of nature—spring will follow winter, healthy ecosystems will operate in balance, and waste matter, properly managed, will become nature’s richest fertilizer and bring new life. But farmers must also contend with nature’s most unpredictable extremes. Northern Colorado’s farmers have seen years of arid drought, hot summers and nearby forest fires, but it’s safe to say that few of them have seen the kind of historic, late-season rain and flooding that we saw in September. As one unusually gray and misty Tuesday turned into days of unrelenting hard rain, Boulder County was changed, putting farms as well as homes, roads, and lives at risk.

Some farms emerged mostly unscathed but feeling for the entire community. “We were spared the unfortunate consequences that others were not,” said Paul Cure, an owner/farmer at Cure Organic Farm, “and our thoughts are with those who were affected in Boulder and Weld County.” Flooded roads limited access to and from some farms while flooded fields washed away late-season crops for others. Farmers’ markets were canceled and stores were closed, or operating with limited power, water and workers. September, usually a celebration of Colorado’s bountiful late summer harvest, demanded a different kind of community spirit this year—neighbors helping neighbors in the most trying and unexpected circumstances.

Natural disasters also ask us to think more carefully about farm and food security. Research such as the Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial, which Rodale says is America’s longest-running side-by-side comparison of organic versus conventional farming, has shown that organic outperforms conventional farming methods in years of drought. It seems likely that, in the long run, organic farming’s priorities of biodiversity and soil health may also help farms recover more quickly from flood damage.

When roads are washed away and access is limited or even eliminated, as we saw with some mountain towns, local foods and farms, ranches, dairies and bee colonies, small producers and community-minded markets all become not just a vital part of the community but an absolutely essential one. When crops and gardens are at risk, the presence of many varieties of plants increases the chances that some will survive. When waterways are polluted by potentially toxic runoff, it’s a reminder that chemical-dependent farming (including genetically modified crops designed to withstand greater amounts of pesticides) has extensive consequences that cannot always be controlled.

In short, all of the benefits of sustainable and organic farming methods become more apparent and more valuable when nature goes to extremes. In times of greater need, we have even greater reason to thank our neighbor-farmers, our food producers and suppliers, and all the advocates working hard for organic and sustainable food systems.

How to Help

  • Buy regularly from Colorado’s organic farmers and producers, whether directly or through markets like Alfalfa’s with a commitment to organics and the community.
  • Consider a donation to the Family Farm Disaster Fund, established by the national nonprofit Farm Aid to help farmers surviving weather-related crises. Farm Aid is aware of the flood situation and ready to help. Farmers in need of help can call 1-800-Farmaid or visit the Farmer Resource Network.
  • The Colorado Farm Bureau has also established a fund to help farmers and ranchers in all of northern Colorado. According to the website, “100 percent of the funds will go directly to aiding these producers as they face the aftermath of this disaster. This flooding has led to a large impact within the agricultural industry within these areas, including damaged fields, stranded livestock, damaged facilities and infrastructure, including roadways and waterways.”

Elaine Lipson is the author of The Organic Foods Sourcebook (Contemporary Books, 2001), a consumer guide to the meaning of organic and the benefits of organic foods and farms, and former organic program director for New Hope Natural Media. She lives in Niwot. 

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