Flooded farms eligible for aid after waiver

TIM KELLY FILE PHOTO | The federal government is making funds available to strengthen barriers separating some North Fork farms and coastal waters. This field of young apple trees in New Suffolk was flooded during superstorm Sandy when part of a nearby dike failed.

Earthen dikes in Cutchogue and Orient damaged by superstorm Sandy left 4.5 miles of North Fork farmland vulnerable to saltwater flooding, but the fields were not eligible for any kind of storm-related government assistance.

For that reason Sen. Charles Schumer and Sen. Kristen Gillibrand petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a waiver to allow the release of Emergency Watershed Protection program funds, originally only for freshwater projects, to repair the barriers.

On Tuesday the senators announced that five local farms, totaling 700 acres, are now eligible for funding through the EWP program, and that funding will cover 75 percent of repair costs, according to a release. The total cost was estimated at $1.7 million, leaving farm owners responsible for a quarter of that, about $450,000.

That’s certainly good news, said Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau.

“Originally the state said ‘this doesn’t qualify, it can’t be considered,” he said. “That was a crock because it’s been used before in other states, including Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts.”

New York’s two senators “interceded on our behalf and basically told them to get it done,” he said.

Each affected farm — Salt Air Farm and Wickham Fruit Farm in Cutchogue, and Latham Farm, Fred Terry Farm and Driftwood Farms in Orient — is protected by a dike. A combined 3,500 feet of dikes was damaged during the storm, according to the release.

The farms have all been a part of the North Fork agriculture community for over 200 years.

“The tidal surge was a foot and a half more than ever in our past,” Mr. Gergela added. “The dikes were dirt that had been packed down, and over 70 years the dirt eroded and flattened out. It wasn’t high enough to stop the tidal surge.”

Prudence Wickham Heston and husband Dan Heston run Salt Air Farm on New Suffolk Road in Cutchogue. They are responsible for maintaining the earthen dike the Wickham family built at the northern end of West Creek in New Suffolk in the 1930s. That structure made more land available for cultivation.

She said she’d welcome financial assistance to strengthen the dike she said has kept salt water at bay for 80 years “storm after storm.”

Flood tides during “The Perfect Storm” of 1992 caused the creek to flow over the dike, but during superstorm Sandy, winds knocked over a tree that had grown on the dike and opened a large hole that led to the flooding of 80 acres of farmland.

“That’s a major hit for us,” Ms. Heston said this week. “It’s very frustrating.”

Especially given that she and her husband have been working to improve the quality of that acreage, which had long lain fallow. The couple had hoped to expand their cut-flower crop there this year.

“We’ll see how long it takes to get the land resurrected again,” she said.

The water flowed west across New Suffolk Road into a low-lying field planted with young apple trees. Ms. Heston has little hope that they’ll survive.

“They may leaf out this spring, but if they do I suspect they’ll die in the July heat,” she said.

Fields flooded with salt water cannot be cultivated for up to seven years.

Mr. Gergela said the farm bureau is reaching out to the state Department of Agriculture and Markets to see if any other funds are available to help farmers with the remaining repair costs.

“They still haven’t determined whether they have found enough money, but they were optimistic,” he said.

Without the EWP funding, the farmers would remain vulnerable during future floods.

“We would have tried to patch the breeches, but it would have been virtually impossible because the funds were not there,” Mr. Gergela added. “It is beyond their financial ability to do it.”

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