September 10, 2011
By Sally Pollak
Andy Jones stood in a field of butternut squash at the Burlington Intervale on Friday morning and marveled at the amount of crop — about three acres and 55,000 pounds worth — that needs to be dumped in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene.
“The really impressive and incredibly depressing thing is how much food we’re leaving in the field,” said Jones, a 42-year-old vegetable grower who has farmed in the Intervale for two decades.
Federal regulations forbid crops that have been in floodwater from being sold for human consumption. The law applies to crops grown above ground, and to root crops that are below the surface of the soil.
It even applies to butternut squash — a vegetable with a thick, smooth skin that can be washed with soap and water, sanitized (with an approved organic sanitizer), and is peeled and cooked before it is eaten.
“If this flood had happened 25 years ago, people might have said we shouldn’t eat the lettuce,” Jones said. “But, OK, that butternut squash is a pretty good bet as far as being able to be safe.”
How much risk?
Vern Grubinger, vegetable and berry specialist with the University of Vermont’s Extension Service, said he hasn’t seen studies about the effects of floodwater on butternut squash.
But Grubinger, who has a Ph.D. in vegetable crops and 21 years experience with the extension service, said there is “a more robust set of studies” than he had been aware that suggest there is some risk to eating flooded crops.
“People think you can just take samples and understand what’s going on,” Grubinger said. “One thing scientists are clear on: It takes a very large number of samples to have any confidence in what you find.”
The studies typically involve replicating flooded conditions by intentionally inoculating certain fields and testing soils and vegetables, Grubinger said.
“It’s clear there’s some level of risk,” he said. “It’s not clear what our level of risk is here. And I can understand the FDA, whose role is to protect the public health, erring on the side of caution. It’s very frustrating to have to throw food away. Especially food that’s going to be cooked and peeled.”
In the field of butternut squash, which was flooded when the Winooski River rose above its banks as Irene inundated Vermont on Aug. 28, you can see the water mark on some of the squash: the silty line that shows where the river rose.
Jones, manager of Intervale Community Farm, said he and his crew will plow under about 55 tons of food to comply with federal regulations. The 530-member community-supported agriculture farm feeds 1,500 to 2,000 people a week, Jones said. He’ll plant a winter cover crop, as farming at the Intervale has come to an abrupt end at the height of the harvest.
“As much as it pains me to look at 50 or 60 tons of food I have in the fields, I have a long-term concern,” Jones said. “Climate change is the concern. If there’s going to be hotter and wetter weather — more extreme weather — the logical conclusion is that there could be more flooding.”
There are preliminary estimates of well over half a million dollars of crop loss at the Intervale, said Travis Marcotte, executive director of the Intervale Foundation. The dollar amount will grow, as not all of the dozen farms have reported their losses, he said.
Statewide, about 10 percent of Vermont’s 500 vegetable farms saw flooding as a result of Tropical Storm Irene, Grubinger said.
“I have personally received reports of about $2 million of losses in vegetable farms,” Grubinger said. “I estimate that it’s likely to be twice that.”
At the Intervale on Friday, a handful of vegetable farmers met with Chuck Ross, the state’s Secretary of Agriculture.
Standing in the muddy fields farmed by Diggers Mirth Collective, the farmers raised concerns about the federal regulations that forbid them from selling any vegetables, including root vegetables and crops that were to be harvested in four or five weeks.
They questioned the basis on which the determinations are made. They wondered about soil testing, and specific criteria that would indicate something about the safety of the food. They are interested in flood-specific data that is particular to Vermont.
There was talk at the Intervale of developing a research project related to contaminants and flooding; of finding collaborators at the university and in the agriculture department; of attempting to the turn the disaster into an opportunity for Vermont to be in the forefront of farm-flood management.
“Seize that opportunity as you try to respond and restore and rebuild your farm,” Ross said. “I don’t underestimate the double whammy of that.”
Grubinger had what he called a “common-sense solution.” He suggested compensating growers for avoiding the health risks to consumers.
“The problem is we don’t have a mechanism in place for adequately compensating growers if we’re going to ask them to throw away their crops,” Grubinger said. “That’s actually the simplest way forward, rather than trying to measure risk on every farm, with every waterway being different and every soil being different.”
Vermont could also develop and propose a system that allows for exemptions to the one-size-fits-all FDA rule. In this way, site assessments can be made that demonstrate a lack of significant sources of contamination, Grubinger said.
Another important factor is for growers to “ramp up” handling of produce after the harvest. This means triple washing of vegetables and applying surface sanitizers, Grubinger said.
“All the big boys do these things,” Grubinger said. “Washing is good. More washing is better.”
Grubinger suspects the level of risk to Vermont’s flooded crops lies somewhere between those who say there’s little problem with the food and those who say it would be extremely risky to eat it.
“We’re in a kind of no-man’s land where nobody has the data for Vermont, and you can say anything you want,” Grubinger said, “and it’s not a good place to be.”