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Hartford - The massive storm that dumped more than 2 feet of snow in many parts of Connecticut was only the latest headache for Mark Sellew as he struggles through storms and a weak economy to run his family farm in rural Lebanon.
About 600 linear feet of plastic-covered greenhouses collapsed from the snow this past weekend, he said Wednesday. The building collapses damaged or destroyed ornamental plants, herbs, perennials, trees and other plants he sells to landscapers and nursery centers in the Northeast and along the Atlantic seaboard.
The damage would have been greater, Sellew said, had he not spent $10,000 for two-by-fours he used to reinforce greenhouses on his 500-acre Prides Corner Farms.
"We've never had one single event cause this kind of damage," he said. "It's unprecedented."
State agriculture officials say more than 120 farm buildings such as greenhouses and hoop houses - structures of sheet plastic stretched over bent metal hoops - were damaged or destroyed in Connecticut. Agriculture Commissioner Steven Reviczky said the winter of 2010-11 was more destructive, but the 511 buildings that were damaged or destroyed then followed several snow and ice storms over a few months.
"This is a single storm," he said. "This is a significant loss."
Much of the damage in Connecticut was to the state's nursery and landscaping businesses, which account for more than $1 billion in sales, or about half of all agriculture in Connecticut.
Marc Laviana, president of Sunny Border Nurseries Inc. in Berlin, said five of 16 greenhouses collapsed under the weight of 3 feet of snow. The greenhouses are made of strong plastic coverings supported by metal pipes.
"It surprised the hell out of us that these fell," he said. "It just sets you back for spring."
Laviana said no plants or flowers were in the greenhouses at the time. Workers were taking down the damaged structures Wednesday, and Laviana planned to have new greenhouses brought in.
The storm also killed livestock. Two cows died and two were injured in buildings that collapsed during the weekend.
Bob Heffernan, executive secretary of the Connecticut Nursery & Landscape Association, said farmers and agriculture officials do not yet know how much damage was caused. It could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, he said.
Sellew said it's harder to insure greenhouses and hoop houses because the buildings are considered temporary.
Reviczky said financial help from Washington will likely be available for damage to crops, not buildings, and will be in the form of low-interest loans to farmers who don't necessarily qualify for commercial loans.
The weekend storm was the fourth since Tropical Storm Irene battered Connecticut in August 2011. It was followed by a freak snowstorm in October 2011 and Superstorm Sandy last October. Sellew said he lost power for seven days during Irene and lost many plants in the October 2011 snowstorm.
"I don't know what's going on with the climate but in the last 13 months I've seen more weather events that are unprecedented than I'd care to see," he said.
The storm damage only adds to his financial troubles due to the weak economy. The landscaping industry is tied to home construction, which collapsed in 2007-08, causing the recession and only now showing signs of life.
"It's been a struggle," Sellew said.