Wisconsin Flooding May Mean Pricier Organic Foods

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

MILWAUKEE (AP) -- Richard de Wilde was still reeling from the more than $600,000 in damage that last summer's flooding did to his organic vegetable farm when new storms swept through this month, dumping rocks, gravel and silt on some acres, washing away fences and contaminating fields with runoff.

De Wilde, 59, said he's never experienced anything like the two floods in the past 10 months. After the latest round cost him an estimated $250,000, he's rethinking how he plants his 120 acres in the southwestern corner of the state, home to a vast number of Wisconsin's organic farms.

De Wilde, like many organic farmers in the area west of Madison and east of the swollen Mississippi River, grows a wide range of vegetables, including lettuce, salad greens, tomatoes, beets and spinach.

"I decided not to farm a few acres of land that I've farmed for I guess 25 years," he said. "They are the most prone to rocks washed onto it or flooded by the river. I just can't bear to see it happen again."

Only California has more organic farms than Wisconsin, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. De Wilde's Harmony Valley Farm is one of the largest organic farms in the state.

The floods that damaged his and other farms in southern Wisconsin earlier this month are likely to result in fewer fruits and vegetables at regional farmers markets this summer and will boost already high prices for organic eggs and meat at national grocery stores in the fall.

A cool spring meant many farmers were about two weeks behind in planting. The storms struck just as their first vegetables emerged from the ground.

"Twelve inches of water falling on, say, this field of beets that were just starting to peak through the soil, it just washed them away," de Wilde said. "They couldn't withstand that kind of deluge."

Organic corn fed to livestock that provide organic eggs, chicken, beef and pork was barely 4 inches high, half of what it should have been, said Eric Newman, vice president of sales for La Farge, Wis.-based Organic Valley, the nation's largest cooperative of organic farmers.

Now, it's too late in the season to replant, which means feed is likely to be in shorter supply and more expensive in the fall, when farmers in cold states such as Wisconsin stop grazing their animals. Newman predicted the cooperative will have to raise egg and dairy prices accordingly.

"Unless we pay them more, they can't afford to purchase that feed," he said.

The one area where consumers aren't likely to see a shortage or higher prices is in organic produce sold by large grocers, such as Whole Foods. California supplies over half of the nation's organic fruits and vegetables and should be able to make up for losses in Wisconsin and other flooded states, Newman said.

That could hurt farms like Driftless Organics in Soldiers Grove, Wis. After flooding last August, farm owners Josh and Noah Engel and manager Mike Lind planted early vegetables such as peas and beans in a field that had dried out well. That land got flooded this month.

Now, they're scrambling to get spinach and other fast-growing plants into the ground. About half of their business is wholesale, but Lind said they can't look to grocers to pay more to cover the cost of replanting.

"I think the local food scene is in such its infancy right now, that any outlet that does carry our produce has so many connections with California growers that they could easily make up for what we produce," he said.

Instead, farms like Driftless Organics and de Wilde's farm are banking on their community-supported agriculture programs, in which people pay for a share of their harvest up front. CSA members get more produce in good years and less in times of drought or flood.

Many CSA members support farms in other ways as well. For example, de Wilde's members donated $52,000 to help him rebuild after August's flood. In comparison, his federal insurance paid $23,000.

Unlike farmers who grow corn, wheat and other commodities, most vegetable farmers don't have any crop insurance because the programs set up for them are difficult to enroll in and pay relatively little, said Laura Paine, an organic agriculture specialist for the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Still, she said farmers like de Wilde are relatively lucky because they can replant and salvage part of the growing season.

That's not the case for muck farmers, who plant in nutrient-rich soil in low areas drained by ditches. Some muck farms in southern Wisconsin's Columbia, Adams and Jefferson still have many acres under water, Paine said.

They also tend to plant one or two vegetables, often carrots and onions, in the spring for sale to organic food processors in the fall. "Those folks have basically lost their crops for the year," Paine said.


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