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As hard-hit farmers assess storm damage, vendors of produce already feel effects; Too early to put dollar figure on 'catastrophic' destruction

Richard Ball has farmed for 40 years and has grown a wide range of produce -- from carrots to cabbage to tomatoes and peppers -- on his Schoharie Valley Farms since 1993.

The 58-year-old family farmer, whose three children work the land with him, said there was no question the flooding from Tropical Storm Irene was the worst the area's ever had. His 200 planted acres in the valley's rich bottomland were under 4 to 18 feet of water after Irene, and he estimates losses in gross revenue will be in the $100,000-plus range.

"It's almost incalculable," he said.

Farmers around the state's hardest-hit regions -- the Hudson Valley, Mohawk Valley, Schoharie Valley and Adirondacks -- are trying to get a handle on just how big a hit they'll take from the punishing storm, which dropped several inches of rain in some places, overwhelming already full waterways and spewing muddy misery over cropland.

The state Department of Agriculture and Markets is working with the New York Farm Bureau and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to assess damage, said department spokesman Michael Moran. He said it's too early to put a dollar figure on it.

"In some places, there has been catastrophic damage," he said.

Farms pushed $4.7 billion into state coffers in 2010. New York has more than 36,000 farms and ranks near the nation's leaders in production of apples, grapes, cherries and pears. Those orchard fruit fared well during the storm, which didn't pack the fruit-ripping winds normally connected with a tropical storm, said Peter Gregg, a spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau, an advocacy group.

But the state also produces tons of cabbage, sweet corn, onions, cauliflower and more vegetables, and the timing for those products couldn't have been worse. Farmers are used to flooding in the spring, especially in northern climes where snowmelt swells rivers. Coming this close to harvest means a lot of work could be wasted and farmers may find it difficult to pay off loans taken in the beginning of the year when they anticipated a full yield in the fall.

"If you just look at the big picture here: We're just heading into harvest season, it's been all work, all outgo, and now, virtually, the crops have been lost and what does that mean for next year," Ball said. "It's staggering to think about where a lot of people stand right now."

The effects are already being felt at greengrocers, farm stands and other vendors who rely on locally grown produce.

"While some farmers are making CSA [community supported agriculture] distributions on schedule this week, others are canceling this week's deliveries to focus their attention on cleaning up and assessing the damage to their properties," said Jacquie Berger, executive director of Just Food, which runs a network of CSAs in New York City.

Ball understands that farming is at the mercy of nature.

"It's definitely part of your risk management," Ball said.

The New York Farm Bureau is helping farmers assess the damage for reimbursement from insurance and potentially from federal disaster funds. Many fields are underwater, and a number of dairy cows drowned or were swept away by the rushing floodwaters.

Farm Bureau President Dean Norton said that despite a rough start to the growing season -- the spring started with crushing floods in some regions -- most farmers in the state were anticipating a good year as prices were held steady. Irene changed all that.

"It's thousands of acres and millions of dollars," Norton said. "It couldn't have happened at a worse time. You're looking at total crop failure for some people."

Besides the loss of cash-producing crops to be sold to markets and at roadside stands, much of the corn damaged was grown to feed livestock, meaning farmers could be paying more to truck in feed this winter, Norton said.

Ball will try to stay optimistic. He hasn't walked his whole plot yet but is hoping young cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli and other vegetables might still have time to produce marketable yields.

"We're a resilient bunch, and we'll figure out how to get through this," he said. "To get back to some semblance of normal, it's just staggering to think about."

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