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“We’re Not in the Same Boat”: Flood Impacts Felt Unevenly Across Valley

Courtney Whitely stands by his flooded fields at Ras Farm in Northampton.

NORTHAMPTON — Just last week, local farmer Courtney Whitely was staring out over the plot of land off Meadow Street where he grows eggplant and other crops. It was the best crop he has ever had, he said proudly.

But now it’s all gone.

Whitely’s Ras Farm was one of many local farms devastated when the Mill and Connecticut rivers flooded this week. After days of heavy rain across the Connecticut River Valley and in Vermont, the deluge destroyed the crops and livelihoods of farmers across the region. Now, those who work the land are assessing the damages and preparing for an uncertain future. And they’re not alone.

The floods have ravaged not just farms but homes, buildings and public infrastructure. And while the true extent of the damage is still emerging, it is becoming clear that socially vulnerable populations — immigrants, people of color, small-scale farmers, the unhoused — have experienced a heavy burden, mirroring longtime warnings from experts who have said that climate change will disproportionately impact those groups

“It was like someone stabbed me,” Whitely said Wednesday, gesturing to the muddy fields behind him and describing the hard work that the floods had washed away. Originally from Jamaica, he has spent some two decades farming here in the Valley. What might have been salvaged likely is unusable because of the contaminants that the flood waters brought. “If it’s not drought, it’s rain. If it’s not rain, it’s flood.”

Climate change experts say that global warming has resulted in a kind of “weather whiplash.” Years of drought can be followed by massive rain events made possible because warmer air can hold more moisture. From California to India, extreme weather events have become more intense and more frequent, punctuated by dry spells. In Massachusetts, the summer of 2021 was one of the wettest on record followed the next summer by a drought. This month, some places in Vermont were hit with 9 inches of rain in a day, an amount more typical of an entire summer.

“Warming may be leading to hydroclimate whiplash … which means wide swings between wet and dry periods,” said Michael Rawlins, the associate director of the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Climate System Research Center. “This is believed to be an emerging manifestation of climate warming.”

In addition to smaller-scale farmers like Whitely, farm laborers — many of whom are undocumented immigrants — are already losing their livelihoods because of the flooding in the Connecticut River Valley.

“There are people telling me that because of the floods, all of this that’s happening, they are already not working or are working just one or two times a week,” said Claudia Rosales, who heads the Pioneer Valley Workers Center and has herself been a farmworker. “They need that work to live.”

Rosales said that the Workers Center is organizing to find farm workers employment at other farms or elsewhere. The organization also runs a mutual-aid food distribution program and is working to get financial assistance to impacted workers, she said. But for farm workers who do such essential work, finding other jobs is difficult for many because of their immigration status.

“Those immigrants need that work as much as society does,” Rosales said.

People without housing were also hit hard by the flooding. In an interview with MassLive, Manna Community Center’s Jess Tilley said on Wednesday that six unhoused people had been displaced by flooding at their camp site. 

“Many folks have lost all their belongings including tents, sleeping bags and outerwear,” the organization wrote on their Facebook page. Efforts to reach Manna were unsuccessful Thursday.

Much of the focus has been on farms, though, given the heavy damage they suffered.

On Wednesday, state officials and local lawmakers toured farms across the region that had been submerged and had only just become accessible. The first stop was at the 121-acre Grow Food Northampton Community Farm, where farmers can lease low-cost land and more than 400 community members grow organic garden plots, about a third of which are subsidized. Alisa Klein, the organization’s executive director, said that 275 of the 325 plots there had been inundated.

Pat James, the group’s community garden manager, said that walking through the plots was still heartbreaking, pointing to some of the produce Grow Food Northampton gives to food pantries and other meal sites across the region. Bigger, industrial farms might have an easier time rebounding from floods, but small-scale operations will be less likely to survive, James said.

“We’re not in the same boat,” was how James described the difference between agro giants and independent, small-scale farms. “We’re all in the same water right now … But the people with more resources and access have an easier way out of the water.”

Many of the secondary and tertiary consequences of the flooding are still yet undetermined, state Sen. Jo Comerford said as she walked through a parking lot caked with river mud on her way to see some of the affected farmland. Some of those local food pantries will be missing food they had counted on, for example. And it wasn’t clear as of Wednesday whether the financial costs of the disaster would hit the necessary threshold to trigger a bigger federal response, Comerford added.

“The ripples of this are unknowable at this point,” she said.

Puddles of water were still present on the fields Comerford was visiting. There, a group of Somali Bantu refugees work the land as a cooperative: the New Family Community Farming Coop. Acting as an interpreter between the English-speaking officials and the Maay Maay-speaking farmers, Mumat Aweys explained that out of about 20 plots farmed by the coop, a handful had been flooded.

“They put a lot of work into it; they mostly plow by hand,” Aweys said. “All that work … goes to ruins.”

As the planet gets hotter, many experts have called for municipalities, states and the federal government to get more serious about updating infrastructure to become more resilient. Northampton has gone so far as to create a new department, the Climate Action and Project Administration Department, to make sure that city projects meet climate and sustainability goals — something mayoral chief of staff Alan Wolf said has now become “part of the math of municipal government in the 21st century.”

“Reducing our vulnerability to extreme hydrologic events is an important component of adaptation to climate change,” said Rawlins, the UMass Amherst researcher. He said that extreme precipitation events are increasing faster in the Northeast than anywhere in the country.

On the federal level, Congress is currently debating its “Farm Bill,” which lawmakers pass every five years. The massive legislation puts money toward the country’s food systems, and climate-justice advocates are pushing for significant investments in building more resilience and more steps to reduce carbon emissions.

“The evidence and science and everything around us clearly points to one thing: our future is going to be unlike our past and it’s becoming more difficult to predict that future,” said Omanjana Goswami, an interdisciplinary scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “What we need to do is build more resilient agricultural systems that can adapt to changing climatic patterns but also adapt to drought, to floods.”

Goswami said that from an environmental health perspective, the contamination brought by floodwaters needs to be accounted for. She said that the Farm Bill is a critical moment to further the vital work of building an agricultural model that stops harming the soil and instead works to sequester carbon and prepares for nasty weather ahead.

“This is an opportunity for … everybody to advocate for a more climate-focused Farm Bill,” she said.

One of the farmers at Grown Food Northampton was in the process of experimenting with perennial crops to figure out what could best deal with extreme weather. Piyush Labhsetwar is growing wheat and a pawpaw orchard along the banks of the Mill River, which were all five feet underwater after the floods.

“It’s a mixed bag for me,” he said on Wednesday. Nothing had been uprooted, for example. He just didn’t plan to have such an extreme event test that resiliency in his first year of experimenting.


Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at dusty.christensen@protonmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.

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