Farmers tell Healey of potential impacts of disease, produce quality after continued flooding

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 07-19-2023 2:03 PM

DEERFIELD — After more rain pounded the region on Sunday, Gov. Maura Healey and other state officials visited Deerfield on Monday afternoon to hear firsthand accounts of the damage from the continuing rains to farms in the region — including disease-related impacts that could be seen in the future — and to offer support to the farmers who are affected.

“What’s happening right now is unprecedented and that’s why it requires an unprecedented response,” Healey said. “Unlike [Hurricane] Irene, this happened right on the cusp of harvest, so the crops are ruined for this year and then there’s questions about what’s going to happen next year. We’re going to continue to stay on top of it. … Know that the lieutenant governor and I are fully committed to doing everything we can to provide relief.”

Healey’s visit comes after at least 1.5 additional inches of rain fell on the region on Sunday. The National Weather Service reported 1.56 inches of rain at its automated weather reporting system in Orange, but the total may have been higher in other parts of Franklin County. Citizen reports published in the agency’s rainfall report show 2.45 inches of rainfall in Conway and 2.03 inches in Montague.

Gathering on the road leading to Deerfield’s meadows, farmers including Allan Zuchowski spoke to Healey, Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll and several other state officials about the challenges they face post-flooding. Additionally, those present noted they may not know the full extent of their losses until they harvest their crops due to disease and other factors that may affect the plants.

“I have to tell you Gov. Healey, right now, you are standing in a Petri dish in a science lab. The conditions are perfect; we’re going to see a host of diseases coming in,” said Zuchowski, who operates Hadley’s Lazy Acres Farm. “Our problems are just beginning. It’s the tip of the iceberg.”

Adding onto that statement was Deerfield farmer Mike Antonellis, who said Antonellis Farm could lose more crops or offer lower-quality produce, which could in turn impact the farm’s relationships with wholesale companies.

Zuchowski said the main threat will come from phytophthora capsici, a pathogen that isn’t harmful to humans, but rots numerous types of commercial crops, including winter squash and peppers.

With Greenfield and Montague’s wastewater treatment plants releasing contaminants into the Connecticut River, any crop touched by the river is also contaminated, meaning many crops that did survive the flooding are unable to be harvested and sold.

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Farmers have made it clear to state and federal officials in the last week that more low-interest loans are not the answer to crop loss. Healey said her administration will be pursuing several funding sources to help those who are affected.

“We’re going to pursue federal funding, we’re going to pursue funding from our colleagues in the Legislature,” Healey said. “And we also know these guys can’t afford to wait, so what are the ways that we can get money out the door, either through our administration or through private philanthropy as quickly possible to help them deal with immediate needs.”

One problem, identified by Deerfield farmer Jay Savage, is many of the hydroelectric dams and reservoirs on the region’s rivers were not drawn down ahead of the week’s storms, meaning there was less room for the fresh rainwater to go.

Releasing that water in anticipation of a storm, he said, is “part of trying to resolve this in the long term.”

Deerfield Police Chief John Paciorek Jr., who is also the town’s emergency management director, said the root of their problems comes through climate change, as well as the high levels in the dams and reservoirs. He also emphasized that Deerfield’s infrastructure, like many other towns, is outdated.

“You take the whole thing across the spectrum: it’s a disaster,” he said. “Our farms were built 300 years ago around rivers because of water. And now, that water is no longer being managed because of climate and because of the hydroelectric facilities making money.”

Healey said she would take the information about the dams back to her team to see what they can figure out.

While farmers and other businesses continue to assess the damage, the state has launched a webpage with resources compiled for those who may need financial or other forms of assistance. The page can be viewed at bit.ly/3NZhtXk.

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.]]>