Western Mass. farmers try rebooting after epic floods

It was shaping up to be a bountiful year for Liz Adler and Ben Perreault — the married owners of Mountain View Farm.

“Honestly, those fields were more beautiful than they’ve ever been,” said Adler. “They were weed-free and we’ve never been prouder of those fields this year.”

In those fields, the couple looked to harvest an array of organic summer vegetables from corn to tomatoes to eggplant and much more.

And then came the flood.

In mid-July, an epic amount of rain fell on parts of New England — up to nine inches in some areas of Vermont. With the ground already saturated from a generally wet summer, much of the runoff ended up in area rivers — including the Connecticut River — which flows through Western Massachusetts and adjacent to some of Mountain View’s fields.

As all that rain fell, Adler and Perreault knew there was a potential for catastrophe.

“We saw the river projections, we saw what was happening in Vermont,” said Adler. “My husband kept showing me the charts.”

But Adler was optimistic — something she thinks is almost a prerequisite to farming.

“I just didn’t believe it was going to flood,” she said. “The night before the water was coming right up to my feet and I just didn’t believe it was going to flood.”

It flooded — big time. The water rose so high that Perreault had to navigate the cornfield using a kayak. In all, Mountain View Farm lost 45 acres of summer and winter crops.

“Those fields contained all of our sweet corn,” said Adler. “Some of that sweet corn was ready, literally, the morning that it flooded.”

Also lost: the entire crop of tomatoes and green peppers, most hot peppers, winter carrots, celeriac, and leeks. In all, the loss totaled about $650,000. That loss was offset somewhat by the fact Mountain View Farm runs a Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA), in which customers buy shares in advance of the growing season.

“So they are supporting the farm, theoretically, in good times or bad,” said Adler. “Part of the underpinning of the CSA model is that they share in the risks of growing food — and those risks are for the whole community to share. And so we are better insulated than a lot of farms because we have that support.”

The trouble is, Mountain View had not yet sold shares for its fall and winter crops. And aside from sweet potatoes, which are grown on a field in Hadley, many of those cold-weather vegetables were swept away.

Mountain View is not the only farm to get wiped out by last month’s flooding. The State Department of Agriculture tells Boston 25 News that at least 110 farms in Western Massachusetts suffered flood damage — with at least 2,700 acres gone. And the state expects those numbers to grow. In response to the flooding, Governor Maura Healey’s supplemental budget included $20 million in relief for affected farmers.

That money might help get farmers through this bad season — but what it won’t do is make farming any easier. In fact, it’s likely to get more difficult — because of climate change.

“Back when we started (in 2006), two to three inches of rain would be a major weather event,” Adler said. “And now it feels like that sort of thing happens all the time. I’m not exactly sure when that transition happened. It feels like the weather events are getting more and more frequent and more and more extreme.”

And Adler worries this summer’s flooding could have implications down the road — in the form of plant diseases.

“Lots of diseases spread through moisture droplets,” she said. And lots of them are fungal diseases that spread through spores. And the farmers that didn’t flood this year are going to have a really challenging season because they’re going to deal with all of that. I keep thinking it’s like dying a slow death rather than going under all at once.”

The fact that Mountain View Farm went under all at once even shocked Liz and Ben’s teen daughter, Ollie, a youth climate activist.

“I think we talk so often about how climate change is going to impact every aspect of our lives and then when it does it’s still so startling and alarming,” she said. “Now that it’s happening to my family in my own backyard it has taken on a new meaning for me.”

Ollie, who was awarded last fall with a Boston Celtics ‘Heroes Among Us’ award for her environmental activism, said she was pleasantly startled at the number of people blaming the flooding on climate change. At the same time, she’s disheartened by a lack of action.

“Nobody’s talking about the preventative measures that we’re going to take as a state moving forward,” she said.

Actually, late last year, the Baker Administration unveiled a state plan to help offset climate change. The Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2050 outlines the various steps needed to achieve net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by mid-century.

But that’s 27 years away. And when their fields initially flooded, Adler said she and her husband considered throwing in the towel on farming.

“Our first reaction was, definitely, that we’re done,” she said. “My husband wanted to take our sign down off the road and just kind of give up.”

But then the community stepped in — the thousands who supported the farm for so many years, accepting good harvests and bad.

“The feedback on what the farm has meant to people and seeing the reality of what this CSA model can be — it was so healing for us,” Adler said. “We just heard over and over every day for two weeks, about how important the farm has been to people. Now, given the support from the community, we actually feel more resolved than ever to keep going and just keep trying our best. I feel like if they don’t want to give up, then we won’t either.”

But that’s not to say Adler and Perreault don’t have apprehensions. With climate change producing, in general, wetter storms or, if not that, drought conditions, farming is set to become increasingly challenging.

“We are going to have to figure out how to manage disease, what to plant where and be even more conscientious about spreading our risk,” said Adler. “Because these events are not going to stop.”

Mountain View Farm set up a GoFundMe to help cover their losses — and many in the community have already donated. To make a donation, click the link here.

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