Blizzard hammers greenhouses

Salem - Anne and Joe Duncan didn't dare venture out to the grounds of their nursery, The Salem Herbfarm, during the height of last weekend's blizzard.

"All you could hear was the wind whipping, and it was looking strange, but you just couldn't get a good view," Anne Duncan said.

She was up all night waiting for the morning light to arrive to get a clear view of the damage the storm may have caused the farm's hoophouses and gutter-connected greenhouses.

What they saw was "just terrible," Anne Duncan said Saturday.

The hoophouses had escaped damage, but the weight of the snow had buckled the metal support beams and ripped through the heavy plastic covering of the farm's largest greenhouse.

Damage to the Duncans' farm and others throughout the state prompted a visit Saturday afternoon from U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who had toured Clinton Nurseries in Westbrook earlier in the day.

"Nurseries and greenhouses took it on the chin from Nemo," Courtney said. "Farming is a risky business, things happen, you can plan and try and sometimes you have no control."

The non-food greenhouse sector is a $1.1 billion state industry, with 3,000 businesses and 48,000 employees, according to a press release from Courtney's office. According to the Connecticut Nursery & Landscape Association, the blizzard caused between $12 and $20 million worth of damage to a total of 47 greenhouses or nursery/farm growers across the state. They include Semkow Farm in Colchester and Canterbury Horticulture.

Robert Heffernan, executive secretary for CNLA, said there are low-interest loans available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but "that's about it" as far as assistance from the federal government for farms impacted by the blizzard.

"The USDA is very focused on food agriculture but not so much on non-food agriculture, and nurseries are the largest component of non-food agriculture in Connecticut, so it's really a battle," Courtney said. "It's the same with shellfish farming, they don't qualify for disaster assistance."

He said his tour of the Herbfarm and of Clinton Nurseries helped him get a better hold on what information he plans to take to Washington as Congress continues work on the farm bill.

"It's helpful to see events like this and see ways that certain programs might be helpful in coming up with ways to help people with reconstruction," Courtney said.

Inside the collapsed greenhouse at the Herbfarm Saturday, rows of pots sat full of soil.

Anne Duncan said the greenhouse would have been filled with seedlings for sale, but because of the collapse, she'll have to buy most of what she typically grows herself.

This summer, the Duncans will lean on other Connecticut distributors for their supply, and the family is already working to find distributors that carry the "weird" varieties of pansies Anne Duncan grows. Her customers come to her specifically for the varieties she offers, she said.

Reconstructing the greenhouse will set the farm's operation back to where it was about 10 years ago, Joe Duncan said.

Some farms and nurseries are insured for their structures while others are not, Anne Duncan said. Farmers will have some tough decisions to make as to whether they rebuild or give up their operations, she said.

The Salem Herbfarm is insured, and Joe Duncan said he expects to at least receive the replacement value for the greenhouse, minus depreciation. The three-bay, 60-by-90-foot greenhouse, which he built himself, is about six years old.

The Duncans will need some helping hands to re-hang the plastic covering over the farm's only other growing area, which survived the blizzard because the plastic had ripped in a previous windstorm. The rip had prevented snow from piling up and collapsing the structure with its weight.

"People love coming in here, and they won't be able to this summer," Anne Duncan said, standing underneath the greenhouse's sagging metal support beams.

"You do what you gotta do and you just pick up and you move on. We'll be all right."

j.hanckel@theday.com

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