Federal lawmakers meet with farmers, speak to post-flood support

By BELLA LEVAVI

Staff Writer

Published: 07-16-2023 1:23 PM

DEERFIELD — As farmers assess the impact of last week’s flooding on their livelihoods and the future of the season’s crops, federal lawmakers visited the area on Saturday to see the damage firsthand.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern visited two farms together on Saturday — Ciesluk Farm Stand/Antonellis Farm in Deerfield and McKinstry’s Market Garden in Hadley — to speak directly with farmers about what can be done to help. McGovern also stopped at Swazlowski Farm in Hadley.

“The problem is bad and it’s not over,” Warren said in an interview in Deerfield. “We are talking to farmers who lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. These floods came at a terrible moment.”

Last week’s flooding came at what Ashley Randle, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR), described as a critical juncture — when now-destroyed crops were just about ready to be harvested, while also being too late in the season to plant more. Hurricane Irene — to which this past week’s devastation has been compared by legislators and farmers alike — came later in the season, thus impacting less of the harvest.

In response, MDAR eased its guidelines about contaminated fields, allowing larger portions of crops to be salvaged. To assist farmers in evaluating flood-damaged crops while ensuring compliance with state and federal law, MDAR’s Produce Safety Team developed “Handling Flooded Produce: What Farmers Need to Know and Conducting Risk Assessments.” The guidelines can be viewed at bit.ly/43rInNk.

Originally, Mike Antonellis of Antonellis Farm expected about 90% of his crops to be lost. Amid changing guidelines, this number has shifted to about 50%, though it could continue to fluctuate as the farm assesses the flooding’s impact throughout the year.

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The federal lawmakers told farmers on Saturday the most immediate help they could provide is low-interest federal loans. They explained these loans can be used to refinance existing loans so they can continue paying off their debts at a lower monthly payment.

Still, Warren and McGovern said they understand these loans are not enough.

“This is a disaster, in my opinion,” McGovern said. “People need help. They need more than just loans. There needs to be grant assistance.”

Antonellis echoed this sentiment, saying more needs to be done to help farmers.

“I am a young farmer; I am already up to my eyes in loans. I don’t need more loans to pay off loans,” he said.

Antonellis said his corn crop was insured, but his insurance company and MDAR operate with different guidelines, so there may be a disconnect between what damage gets covered and what crops can be sold.

Officials assured the farmers they are working hard on this issue, attending and planning meetings since the floods occurred. Kristen Elechko, the governor’s western Massachusetts director, said that in addition to visits by Gov. Maura Healey and Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll in the past few days, Healey’s office has been in constant conversation to find quick relief to the issue.

McGovern said he will be speaking with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack about what has happened in western Massachusetts this week to push for federal aid.

The officials stressed that a coordinated effort from local, state and federal governments is taking place to alleviate the farmers’ hardships.

“The good news here is that we are coordinated,” McGovern said. “It is the local, state and federal government working together, and we are going to try to figure out a way to provide some relief.”

Beyond the flooding

While farmers’ livelihoods are hurt, officials are also seeing other issues arise as a result of the flooding.

Warren said this is an opportune time to examine infrastructure. She explained culverts in Massachusetts were damaged from the storm and sewage systems were pushed beyond their limits.

“This is a moment we should be pushing harder on infrastructure investment in water and sewer,” she said.

Elechko said the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) was tested during this disaster. She explained Healey’s office is hoping to see more flexibility from the agency, with many local governments not being able to meet MEMA’s requirements for assistance, but still being in need of help during natural disasters.

“It is an opportunity for all of us to assess what state systems have existed and what might be possible in building equitable support across the state,” Elechko said.

McGovern took an opportunity at the Deerfield stop to speak about his continual support for farmers.

“We want farmers to stay here,” McGovern said. “The best way we can assure that is to see what way we can provide short-term relief, as well as better planning for the long-term.”

He mentioned farmers will be forced to sell their land if relief does not come and he urged people to support farmers by buying local.

“It is good they are acknowledging what the farmers are really going through,” Antonellis said, “and they saw that we are struggling.”

 

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