Recorder: Franklin County farmers left reeling by deluge

Franklin County farmers left reeling by deluge

Staff Writer
Published: 7/11/2023 6:12:29 PM

As some of the worst flooding since Hurricane Irene battered parts of Franklin County on Monday, area farms spent Tuesday morning assessing the damage left by the deluge.

Rain fell across western Massachusetts from Sunday evening through Monday afternoon, causing severe damage at some local farms as rivers and brooks rose over their banks. Conway received the brunt of the storm, with 4.58 inches of rain falling on the town as of 7 a.m. Tuesday morning, according to data from the National Weather Service. Ashfield received 4.12 inches, Buckland got 3.89 inches and Colrain experienced 3.68 inches, while the rest of Franklin County saw more than an inch and a half of rain.

Maggie Toran and her partner David Fisher at Natural Roots farm in Conway. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Some local towns are also under a flood warning as the Connecticut River carries floodwater runoff from Vermont — where President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration — through the Pioneer Valley and toward the Atlantic Ocean. The National Weather Service said Tuesday morning that “moderate flooding is forecast” for areas along the Connecticut River, while areas along the Deerfield River were looking at “minor flooding.”

Natural Roots, a horse-powered, community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm on Shelburne Falls Road in Conway, experienced some of the worst damage in the county as the South River ran over its banks and washed at least 4 feet of water over the many vegetables and other crops planted there. David Fisher, who has owned the farm for 26 years, and his partner Maggie Toran, said the flooding was the worst they’ve seen since Hurricane Irene in 2011.

“It’s a mess here. … It just came so fast,” Fisher said as volunteers crossed the footbridge to the farm to help clean up debris. “It’s every bit as bad as Hurricane Irene.”

Fisher said they had a crew out at approximately 8:30 a.m. on Monday morning to try and manage the rain as it came down. After taking a brief break, though, they went back outside to find the field underwater and deployed staff and their horses to rescue the irrigation pump and chickens. Their mobile chicken coop, however, was parked in the field and the river swept away a “couple dozen chickens” as Fisher and his crew frantically worked.

Volunteers pull debris off tomato plants at Natural Roots farm in Conway after the South River flooded the fields on Monday. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

As he looked over the flattened crops on Tuesday, Fisher said they may be able to salvage a portion of their more robust vegetables, but only if they’re uncontaminated from the river. He said a Massachusetts Department of Agriculture (MDAR) representative will be visiting the farm on Wednesday to help determine their next steps.

If the plants are considered contaminated, Fisher and Toran will lose the vast majority of 2023’s crops — they have two smaller fields separate from a primary one — and 230 families that participate in the CSA won’t be able to collect their produce.

“We are trying to save plants that we think might be able to produce food,” Fisher said. “If there’s not any contamination, there’s a lot of food here.”

While he described the flood as a “little bit of a tragedy,” Fisher and Toran said the community mobilized immediately to help. Within a few hours of posting a call for volunteers on their website, two dozen people arrived Tuesday morning and several more showed up for an afternoon shift.

Representatives from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) and Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) also arrived Tuesday to talk to the farm, as well as state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Deerfield.

Blais said that situations like this week’s flooding are “horrific” for farmers.

Volunteers Jae Silverman and Jacinta Hunting salvage netting at Natural Roots farm in Conway after the South River flooded the fields on Monday. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

“The [U.S. Department of Agriculture] has loan assistance, but no direct assistance for farmers who have lost crops,” Blais said, adding that a late frost this spring caused many farmers to lose their entire peach and apple crops for the year. “It’s heartbreaking to talk with farmers who give so much of themselves to the land and to their communities.”

Toran said the support has been “heart lifting,” coming in the form of volunteer work, meals brought to the farm and the offer of machinery to move silt and other material deposited by the river.

“We need the community support, generally speaking, to support a small farm in this economic climate,” Fisher added. “In moments like this, the community presents their support and dedication.”

Toran said they expect to launch a GoFundMe within the next day or so, with a goal of raising $130,000 to pay for lost crops, employee wages and additional work to mitigate future damage. Once launched, the GoFundMe can also be found on the farm’s Facebook page.

Other farms hit, but spared the worstUp the road in Ashfield, Foxtrot Farm manager Abby Ferla said her farm was able to escape the worst of the damage due to its location. However, the farm did experience some soil erosion.

“We’re lucky in this instance to grow on the top of a hill,” Ferla said. “We had a little bit of crop damage and erosion, but nothing as catastrophic as some of our neighbors.”

Foxtrot Farm grows botanical herbs and elderberries, which the farm planted after receiving a 2021 grant due to their resistance to heavy rain. While those berries will help with climate-resilience, Ferla said the amount of rain seen this summer has been unprecedented in her six years in Ashfield.

“We’ve had really wet seasons before, but the amount of damage and erosion in our fields is definitely the most we’ve seen,” Ferla said.

With rain, the early spring frost and the Canadian wildfire smoke, Ferla said it’s been a tough year for farmers.

“Between the rain and the smoke this season, it’s been a challenge,” she said. “I think growers are just getting hammered.”

In Shelburne, Apex Orchards owner Tim Smith said the orchard avoided crop damage, but it has been difficult to access due to all the water running through it.

“We’ve had more than a foot of rain since the first of July,” Smith said. “It’s impacting our work and everything else. Hopefully we’ll get through it.”

The last few years have been a sort of whiplash for farmers, with 2021’s wet season, severe drought in 2022 and the extremely wet start to 2023. Despite that, Smith said they’ll keep pushing through.

“The old farmers have a saying,” he said. “A dry summer will scare you to death, a wet summer will starve you to death.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at or 413-930-4081. Information from State House News Service was used in this story.

An earlier version of this article included incorrect information pertaining to the South River in Conway and its connecting watershed. David Fisher, owner of Natural Roots farm, said he may be able to salvage a portion of the farm’s more robust vegetables following flooding on Monday, but only if they’re uncontaminated from the South River. The river begins in Ashfield and flows south before joining the Deerfield River, which in turn flows into the Connecticut River. Any contamination from Greenfield and Montague is not connected.