Sandy damage hurting 5 historic LI farms

Prudence Heston, owner of Salt Air Farm in Prudence Heston, owner of Salt Air Farm in Cutchogue, walks along a dike that separates saltwater from freshwater. Many of the dikes on the East End gave out during superstorm sandy flooding farmland with saltwater. The problem for farm owners is that no federal or state compensation plan covers repairs to dikes. (Feb. 28, 2013) Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

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Five historic farms face an uncertain future after superstorm Sandy breached, damaged or destroyed 4.5 miles of dikes, allowing saltwater to flood nearly 800 acres in Cutchogue and Orient.

If the earthen barriers to prevent runoff and keep out the tides aren't repaired, the fields used for centuries to grow wildflowers, hedges, vegetables and fruit will continue to flood.

"When saltwater gets on the farmland, it's not really good for two or three years after," said Fred Terry, owner of Fred Terry Farms in Orient, one of the affected farms.

Despite $60 billion in Sandy aid, no federal or state agency or program appears to directly cover coastal farm repairs.

Farmers, local advocates and state senators have been scrambling for weeks to find ways to help cover some of the repair costs that range between $1.7 million and $2.7 million for the dikes.

The repairs are not part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mission, officials said. Farmers would not be eligible for Federal Emergency Management Administration disaster recovery programs, an agency spokesman said.

"These dikes don't fit into anything," said Prudence Heston, 46, owner of Salt Air Farm in Cutchogue. "They don't fit into any category."

Sharon Frost, a soil technician with Suffolk County Soil and Water Conservation District, which helps administer grants for farmers, looked into program after program to find aid for the historic farms. "The funding wasn't coming from anywhere," she said.

The Long Island Farm Bureau sought the help of New York Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.

"We're all working together to push this rock uphill," said Joseph Gergela, the bureau's executive director.

Schumer and Gillibrand, both Democrats, have asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to give the farms access to an emergency watershed protection program, which would fund 75 percent of their repair costs. The program received $180 million in the Sandy aid bill."The USDA must provide funding to repair these critical levees so that when future storms hit the region, this farmland is protected from serious flooding," Schumer said in a statement.

The agency is reviewing the request, said Don Pettit, state conservationist for USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. "Traditionally we have not worked in coastal zones, but we're looking at that to see if it's something we can get past," he said.

Darrel J. Aubertine, state Department of Agriculture & Markets commissioner, recently wrote to the farmers that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was committed to finding funding to cover the repairs, either from federal agencies or a combination of state and federal aid.

"The governor recognizes the critical role these structures play . . ." Aubertine wrote.

The storm punched a hole in a Salt Air dike separating farmland from West Creek, flooding the area like a fish bowl.

"We don't have years to work through this," Heston said. "We have until the next storm."

Quick repairs barely held up three weeks when another storm hit, opening the farm to waters of Peconic Bay Estuary. The dirt alone cost $20,000, Heston said.

Salt Air, Wickham's Fruit Farm in Cutchogue, and Driftwood Farms, Latham Farm and Fred Terry Farms in Orient are the only Suffolk farms with coastal protection features. The county's 585 farms represent $300 million in annual sales, making Suffolk the top cash-producing county in the state for agriculture.

The five farms date back at least 200 years and provide more than 100 jobs.

Wickham's land has been farmed since 1680. Fred Terry said his 110-acre operation is close to 300 years old.

Driftwood Farms in Orient, owned by Gretchen and Steven Mezynieski since 2006, "has always been farmed, back since the Indians," Steven Mezynieski said. About 40 of the farm's 140 acres were flooded. "Whenever we get a high tide or a storm tide, the salt water comes in," Mezynieski said. "It's not farmable right now."

Many plants can't tolerate salty soils, and crops that are under water essentially suffocate, said Dale Moyer, agriculture program director for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County.

Farmers and researchers said they are hoping the rain and heavy snows after Sandy pushed the salt deeper into the ground.

A more complete picture of the damage will be evident in May or June. "It's kind of a wait-and-see situation," Moyer said.

Heston said she will probably plant her normal wildflower crop on half of the acreage that had been flooded and barley, which has shallow roots, on the other half.

Terry said he lost 10 acres to flooding and may double-plant other areas to grow his normal quantity of carrots, beats, scallions and other vegetables.

"I'm concerned with the future," he said. "It'll be fine . . . as long as we can get these dikes repaired."

 

 

SANDY DAMAGE ON LI FARMS

 

How some crops react to salt in the soil:

Sensitive: Carrots, green beans

Some tolerance: Spinach, cucumbers, corn

More tolerant: Red beets, broccoli

Resistant: Wheat, barley, rye

Source: Dale Moyer, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County

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