Organic fields OK after flood

Tuesday October 18, 2011

WESTMINSTER -- After farming in Vermont for 40 years, Paul Harlow tends to take the long view on things.

And so when some of his fields were flooded following Tropical Storm Irene, Harlow worried about his ruined produce, his lost sales, and the staff he had to lay off, but he was really concerned about the status of his organic certification.

Following the flood, when Harlow had about two-thirds of his fields under water, there was a potential for contamination that could have put his organic certification at jeopardy.

Initial tests, conducted by University of Vermont Extension, show that his farm, Westminster Organics, was not adversely affected by the water and the farm will most likely continue to receive organic certification by the Northeast Organic Farming Association, or NOFA.

"If the tests showed there was contamination it would have been devastating," Harlow said Monday. "At this point we are optimistic we will be in good shape next year."

The flood waters could have potentially left behind any number of contaminants including hydrocarbons, heavy metals, pesticides and pathogens. Organic farmers must prove that their fields are free of pesticide residue and other chemicals.

All of the fields that were under water have been tested by UVM Extension, and Harlow said the soil will be safe when he turns it over next spring.

"I did the testing because I wanted to know, and I may pay for more tests for my own peace of mind," Harlow said. "It does not seem like there is anything there. So far, so good."

UVM Extension Vegetable and Berry Specialist Vern Grubinger did similar tests all over the state, and he said so far not one organic farm is in danger of losing its organic certification due to flooding.

Grubinger said UVM received funding to conduct heavy metal tests and across the state 80 flooded fields were tested.

"There was great concern because heavy metals stick around a long time and there is no easy way to remove them from the soil," Grubinger said. "We did not find any elevated levels. It is extremely good news."

Grubinger said it is much more difficult to test for pathogens such as E. coli or Listeria, but they could show up in any field, at any time, and it is very difficult and expensive to test soils.

And even if there were pathogens in the flood water, the pathogens die out after time and fields should be ready for their first seeds once the snow melts.

"Clearly we are not having a big problem," said Grubinger. "All of the tests are voluntary and farmers are working with us because they want to know. So far there has been nothing more in the flooded fields than the tiny amount of background levels we find in non-flooded fields."

Nicole Dehne, organic certification administrator for the Vermont Farmers Certification Agency, said the organization will decide over the winter how many farms might need to tested before the spring.

She has been going over Grubinger's test results and she said so far it is looking like the majority of organic Vermont farmers will not lose their certification due to flood waters.

She said NOFA, along with the Agency of Agriculture and other state agencies, will look at areas that might have been more susceptible to damage, such as those down stream from chemical or petroleum spills.

Though she said the large amount of water, and relatively short amount of time that the fields were flooded, most likely protected organic farmers from long term damage.

"There was a high volume of water and a lot of people were concerned that the fields would be contaminated," Dehne said. "If there are any doubts, we will do some tests in the spring, but right now the tests are coming back negative, or very low. It is a good sign."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.


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