Published March 30. 2014 4:00AM Updated March 30. 2014 11:39PM
Franklin - Five severe weather events in the past four years have awakened Connecticut's agriculture community and emergency responders to the reality that the survival of the state's farms depends on how well they're prepared for the worst.
"The main message is that you need to reach out to first responders," Joan Nichols, director of member support and community outreach for the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association, told an audience of about 20 farmers during a "Disaster Preparedness for Agriculture" workshop Saturday. "Farmers are inherently self-sufficient, but we don't know to come help you if you don't communicate."
Along with getting acquainted with their local first responders ahead of any disaster, Jeff Williams, coordinator of risk and emergency management for Groton, told the farmers they also need to make sure emergency responders are familiar with the specific layout of their farm. As an example, he described a Colchester chicken farm that needed its only access road cleared of fallen trees after one of the recent storms so repair crews could get in to restore power. The road also needed to be cleared so daily deliveries of grain for the chickens could resume.
"If you meet the emergency management director ahead of time, he can put you on the priority list for debris clearance," Williams said. "We'd much rather deal with a lot of dead trees than dead chickens."
The workshop, at Blue Slope Farm in Franklin, was one of three offered by the farm bureau around the state in response to the need to help farms better prepare for severe weather events. The March 2010 floods, Tropical Storm Irene, the October snowstorm of 2012, Superstorm Sandy and the February 2013 blizzard have all caused millions of dollars worth of damage in crop losses, livestock deaths, collapsed barns and greenhouses and other damage to the state's $2 billion agriculture industry.
Before these recent events, disaster planning for agriculture "had been an afterthought," said Margaret Chatey, marketing communications specialist for the farm bureau. "But the infrastructure that supports agriculture is very fragile."
To address the need for planning and risk reduction, the farm bureau worked with the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension System, the state Department of Agriculture and the Risk Management Agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create the workshops.
Farms that don't prepare leave themselves most vulnerable to disasters, Joyce Meader, dairy and livestock educator for UConn Extension, said.
"If you haven't even thought about it, or hope it's never going to happen, when it does hit, it's going to be devastating," Meader said.
John Carolus, owner of Fairvue Farm in Woodstock, said he understood first-hand the need to plan for future severe weather. After one snowstorm closed highways in the state, he and other dairy farmers couldn't get grain deliveries in or get their milk out to processors.
"It was getting serious," he said.
Williams suggested contacting the local emergency management director to learn about the process for getting a waiver to let trucks use highways in those situations.
Joseph Bonelli, associate extension educator at UConn Extension, urged farmers to take advantage of the USDA's crop insurance program. It covers losses of produce and other farm products due to hurricanes, floods, insect infestations and other disasters.
"This insurance puts a safety net under your operations," he said.
In addition to large-scale natural disasters, farmers were also urged to prepare for localized ones such as fires or medical emergencies on their property.
Brandon Glidden, assistant fire chief for the Franklin Fire Department, recommended that farmers acquaint local fire departments with their property ahead of time, and make sure that if they call for help, someone is posted at the entrance to the farm to direct fire and ambulance crews once they arrive.
After the presentations, Craig Staebner, president of Blue Slope Farm, led the group on a tour of the 585-acre property and described steps taken there to reduce safety hazards.
In addition to a dairy, goat and maple syrup operation, the property also houses a trucking business and a farm tool museum, and regularly hosts events such as square dances and an October festival that bring in hundreds of members of the public.
All these uses, he said, expose the farm to multiple risks, so he and the other family members that run Blue Slope needed to make sure they were prepared to respond to emergencies.
"We all decided on the importance of having a plan," he said.