Flooding threatens organic certification

Capital Press file Mike Peroni describes how he constructed and maintains nearly 400 feet of low tunnels at his Boistfort Valley Farm, near Curtis, Wash. The farm and many of its structures were damaged when the Chehalis River flooded in December 2007.

Upstream pollutants, pesticides can contaminate soil and crops


Capital Press

CURTIS, Wash. -- When the Chehalis River receded after the devastating December 2007 flood, Mike and Heidi Peroni were faced with rebuilding both their home and their farm.

Some fields of their certified organic Boistfort Valley Farm had as much as 10 inches of sediment deposited on them and scouring where the water had swept over high spots.

"It was mostly a matter of disking and disking and disking to try to incorporate the new material and level the fields," Mike Peroni said.

Other area farms fared much worse.

"There were fields in this valley, without exaggeration, that had logs piled 30 feet high and stretching for two miles," Mike Peroni said.

Whenever floodwaters inundate a farm they can cause serious damage, but when the farm is organic, even more issues come into play, farmers and others say.

One of Peroni's first concerns was whether his organic certification through the Washington State Department of Agriculture would be affected.

"I was very outspoken and persistent in petitioning the WSDA to get out there and get some good accurate information to the public before people started jumping to conclusions," he said. "We are very concerned with our customers' well-being as well as the integrity of the program."

For an organic farm, whatever is upstream will dictate a flood's impact, said Jim Riddle, an organic farmer and outreach coordinator with the University of Minnesota Extension. Contaminants can include petroleum, pesticides and fertilizer as well as pathogens from feedlots or septic tanks.

In the Peronis' case, the flood originated in the undeveloped Willapa Hills of southwestern Washington. They were lucky compared to the havoc caused by this year's flooding in parts of the Midwest and along the Eastern Seaboard, Riddle said.

In some of those cases, buyers there canceled all of their orders, Riddle said. Crops grown on higher-elevation areas were not flooded, Riddle said, but growers had to work with buyers to restore some of the contracts.

Riddle suggested farmers turn to federal and state agencies for help. The Farm Service Agency can provide emergency loans, but it's important the crop remain in the field until the damage can be assessed.

Assistance can also come from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and soil and water conservation districts.

Peroni said he found himself "between the cracks" of disaster-relief organizations. The Federal Emergency Management Agency granted him only enough help to grade the driveway because he was insured. The Small Business Administration turned him down for a loan because the farm's income didn't meet the payback criteria.

Soon after the 2007 flood, he wrote in his blog: "Keep in mind, the last thing we need right now is debt. As farmers we went long on equipment and property. Overnight these assets turned into liabilities. Our stock tanked."

Floodwaters can have variable impacts on crops and soil, Riddle said.

The Food and Drug Administration says any direct contact with water contaminates a crop. The agency advises farmers to maintain a 30-foot buffer from the high-water mark of a flood.

Riddle advised farmers to notify their certifying agent immediately following a flood. The certifier may require preharvest or postharvest testing of products. Temporary variances can be allowed in USDA-declared natural disasters, but they cannot exceed the National Organic Program's 5 percent tolerance for prohibited substances, he said.

If levels are above that, the product can be sold but not as organic.

If testing finds no evidence of prohibited substances, flooded land doesn't have to go through transition, Riddle said.

Seventeen organic farms were affected by the 2007 flood, and none lost its certification, WSDA organic program manager Brenda Book said.

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