‘Frozen, dead and rotting’: Central Texas farmers get first look at storm aftermath
Texas farmers harvested as much produce as they could before the historic storm that hit the state with a five-day deep freeze, and now that fields have thawed, they are seeing just how many crops they lost.
At F Stop Farm in Manor, that was everything. "We won't have harvestable produce for four weeks," farmer Ryan Farnau said Sunday. "It's going to be tough. We're going to have to reset."
At Hat and Heart Farm in Fredericksburg, farmer Bradley Ottmers said Sunday that the onions and garlic will recover, and some of the kale "weathered the storm," but cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, chard and carrots are a total loss. "Everything else is frozen, dead and rotting," he said.
Greenhouses and high tunnels saved some area crops, but not all of them. Gabriel Valley Farms in Georgetown, which provides transplants to many local farms and nurseries, lost two unheated greenhouses’ worth of plants, but everything in the heated houses was saved.
At most farms, the majority of winter crops already in the ground, even those covered by row cover, turned into "a black, gelatinized mess of dead plants," Green Gate Farms co-owner Erin Flynn said Friday.
"It is a dour situation," David Barrow, who runs Eden East Farm in Bastrop, said Friday. "Alliums (such as garlic and onions) can survive slight frosts, and root vegetables can survive harder freezes, but no vegetables like 6 degrees. We will have to wait until early next week to see the full extent of the damage, but it is devastating for all local farmers."
Farms from Plano to Brownsville are facing a total loss of the last of their cold weather crops, which still had several solid weeks of production before the spring season set in.
Last week, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller acknowledged that this weather and power crisis is worse than COVID-19 on the food supply chain.
Last March, the crisis was coronavirus-fueled demand exceeding agricultural supply. This month — and for the next four to six weeks at least — it's another nearly unprecedented demand for food with very little supply from farms across Texas.
It's a combination of catastrophes that is hitting Texas farms hard.
Johnson's Backyard Garden, one of the largest organic farms in Texas, closed for the first time in its 16-year history and paused community-supported agriculture deliveries for the week. The farm had some produce harvested before the freeze to sell at farmers markets over the weekend, but it sold out quickly. JBG transplants survived in the greenhouse, a representative for the farm said.
Dorsey Barger at HausBar Farm, which typically sells to local restaurants and some at-home consumers, also was without power all week. "It is devastating to tell you that our garden has been totally wiped out by this killing winter storm," she shared on social media Thursday.
Boggy Creek Farm lost power the morning of Feb. 15 and closed its farm stand Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Farmer Tracy Gibson Geyer reopened the farm stand Saturday with "a modest amount of produce," mostly harvested before the freeze.
It will take days to remove the soggy row cover, pull the dead plants and figure out what's next. Like most area farms, Green Gate was about halfway through its winter season, in which it sells CSA boxes to about 100 subscribers.
"With a CSA, the risk is shared," Flynn said. "Our customers understand that we are all at the mercy of Mother Nature and it’s unreasonable to expect a farmer to shoulder such a financial and emotional burden alone."
Community groups are coming together to raise money to offset some of these losses.
Texas Farmers Market has an ongoing Ag Support Fund, which aids farmers who have experienced some kind of medical or natural disaster, and it is also working with a statewide organization to offer assistance to farmers who lost crops, animals or infrastructure during the harsh weather.
The Sustainable Food Center has established a relief fund for Central Texas farmers and ranchers to recoup some of the losses. The nonprofit, which runs the downtown and Sunset Valley farmers markets, is accepting donations online and will distribute the money to farmers in need.
Slow Food Austin also has a Farmer Relief Fund, which gives $500 grants to local farmers, that it is collecting donations online.
A coalition of farm organizations around Texas — Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Grow North Texas, Texas Center for Local Food, Central Texas Young Farmers Coalition, Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, UT Rio Grande Valley — has set up the Texas Farmer Winter Storm Relief fund, a statewide fundraiser to provide cash relief for small- and medium-sized farms, prioritizing Black and Latino farmers and family farms that grow using sustainable methods. Applications will be available next week.
Central Texas Young Farmers Coalition President Carolina Mueller said she expects many individual farms to set up GoFundMe accounts, too.
Flynn, of Green Gate Farms, which is in its 15th year of production, said that this kind of piecemeal support shouldn't be the only assistance available to farmers.
"We had done everything right," Flynn wrote in a blog post Thursday. "We bought our supplies and seeds early as we anticipated COVID-induced scarcities, worked overtime prepping fields and planting, then spent countless hours readying for the storm by covering, watering and mulching. We were as ready as you can be."
But without crop insurance, the farmers are the ones who take the hit. To add more layers of protection for farmers, Flynn wants to see food hubs, preservation laws that protect farmland, farmer education funding, loan forgiveness for students who choose to be farmers, and mentoring programs for new farmers.
Without much produce to sell at markets, many farmers won't have income as they try to restart their crops. Some of them have community-supported agriculture programs, whose members paid for boxes that the farmers now won't be able to fill.
Farmers are left asking customers again to support them by buying their crops in the future.
"What we really need is a whole new way of supporting local farmers," Flynn said.
Farnau said having so many winter weather events in such quick succession worries him over the long term. "The real focus should be on subsidies, grants, loans for local, sustainable and self-sufficient food production systems," he said.
"We need to increase our focus on climate change as well as infrastructure. It's a combination of extreme conditions and a lack of institutional responsibility."
Good news on the farm
Some good news emerged with the thaw.
At Bouldin Food Forest, a vegetable farm near Rogers, just south of Temple, farmer Ben McConnell had been working on building a high tunnel that could withstand wind, snow and anything else Texas weather can throw at it.
(A high tunnel is taller than a greenhouse and can have the outside removed, so crops can be planted directly in the ground but with some protection.)
On Thursday, McConnell walked inside one of them to find several hundred heads of lettuce still alive.
"Previous iterations (of the tunnel) collapsed or were destroyed by storms," he said. "This is No. 7, and it's our gold medalist."
He lost everything outside the tunnel, except for maybe the spinach.
Some farmers and backyard gardeners were surprised to find some plants that were well covered and close to the ground survived, thanks in part to the 6 inches of snow on top of the row cover that provided insulation from the coldest temperatures.
Bradley Ottmers of Hat and Heart farm sold all the produce he harvested before the storm to Michael Fojtasek of Olamaie, who prepared meals at the Palmer Events Center as part of the initiative from Good Work Austin and World Central Kitchen to provide free meals at dozens of restaurants in Austin over the weekend.
Farmers are relying on one another, too. Lorig Hawkins of Middleground Farm, another Bastrop-area vegetable farm, hadn't been able to get to her property in Bastrop almost all of last week, but Flynn and husband Skip Connett were checking on their cows.
Hawkins' partner, Carolina Mueller, who is part of that coalition to bring funding to Texas farmers across the state, said, "It's a level of kindness I kind of can't think about or I'll start to bawl."
Addie Broyles writes about food, food culture and cooking for the Austin American-Statesman. You can reach her at email@example.com.