Healdsburg farmers dig out after flooding

Foggy River Farm, Mix Gardens among those that lost crops during heavy December rains.|

December’s flooding took a heavy crop toll among farmers in the Russian River Valley, along Peña Creek in West Dry Creek and, to a lesser extent, in the Dry Creek Valley.

Lynda and Emmett Hopkins of Foggy River Farm, in the Russian River Valley outside Healdsburg, estimate they lost more than $8,000 on fall-planted crops that were inundated by December’s heavy rains. Although the standing water from the Russian River receded after about 36 hours, some crops were a complete loss.

“We lost all our above-ground crops, the broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts,” said Emmett Hopkins, 32. “It’s not just the inundation but the layers of silt that destroyed them.”

“We knew up front that we’d lose those things,” added Lynda Hopkins. “But the root crops, particularly the carrots, started to rot and turned to slime.”

The rain’s long duration set up an anaerobic situation in the soil, in which all the pores that usually contain air filled with water.

While a farmer is used to the vagaries of weather and the vulnerabilities inherent in planting on a floodplain, the disasters make their jobs harder. Usually they are not frequent enough to drive people out of business.

The last time the Hopkins’ property flooded was New Year’s Eve 2005. They farm about eight acres of bottom land that is surrounded by parcels that hold vineyards.

Their Eastside Road property was purchased by Emmett’s grandparents in the 1950s. Historically, the property has been used to grow the gamut of Sonoma County crops, from hops to prunes to pears and grapes. The fertile alluvial soil entices farmers to plant on the plain, where the ground is level.

In addition to the Hopkins’ lost brassicas, a bed of snow and shelling pea seedlings vanished as if they had never been planted. Herbs like sorrel, sage, thyme, oregano and chives also are unusable and will have to be cut back.

While they lost the money for the seeds and the labor costs involved in planting them, Foggy River’s biggest hit comes from the lost sales to CSA shares and farmers market customers.

“It’s hard to sell at the farmers market when you don’t have enough to fill your booth and bring in the customers,” said Lynda. “When they can’t get carrots, they move along to the next booth.”

But diversification has kept them from further losses. The Hopkins have 11 kinds of dried heirloom beans that were harvested over the summer, plus beets, barley and long-lasting storage crops that were harvested before the flood lasting. These include cabbage, winter squash, celery, leeks and onions.

Before the flood, the Hopkins and their farm workers spent three days before the flood lashing down barrels and shelves, and moving bins of squashes from the barn to a safe place above the expected flood line.

Now three weeks after the flooding, they are still shoveling, squeegeeing and washing silt off shelves and floors and bringing things back in from the vineyards. They expect clean up to take another three weeks.

“We missed some of the details when we were preparing for the flood,” Emmett said, pointing at two gates lying at the edge of the vineyard. “They just floated off when we forgot to lash them down.”

It’s too late for them to replant until April, another disadvantage to farming on the plain because the area frosts so heavily.

Mick Kopetsky, owner of Mix Gardens, also lost a significant amount of the crops planted on a 3/4-acre parcel along Peña Creek in West Dry Creek when the whole area was under water, including lettuces and mustard.

He and his farm manager, Alex Lapham expect to be able to plant again in February.

They care for a second market garden, a five-acre farm on Dry Creek Road. It suffered less damage, although water rushed through the property on its way to Dry Creek. Water runoff washed out some of the beds, but the damage wasn’t extensive.

They haven’t yet determined the dollar amount of their losses.

“Now the ground saturation has caused us to lose escarole and endive to rot as well,” said Lapham, the farm manager.

When asked why he plants in a floodplain, Hopkins has an answer already worked out in his mind.

“It’s the family property and is the best opportunity we have to farm,” he said. “The location has meaning to us.

“Floodplains are the birthplace of agriculture. The high water table allows for dry farming, and the floodwaters have enriched the soils. It’s a risk, but it’s also flat, workable and has very rich, fertile soil.”

During the peak season, the Hopkins have two full-time and one part-time employee. They are in the process of applying for organic certification and expect the certificate will help them gain ground in the wholesale marketplace, particularly at the Community Markets in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.

Community Markets now only buys certified organic vegetables for their stores.

But now they are struggling to keep their full-time employee working through the winter. It’s also time for them to order row covers and seed, and Lynda is expecting their second child at the end of February. Daughter Gillian is 2.

Although Lynda continues to work the farm now, that option won’t be open to them when the baby arrives. The farm grosses more than $100,000 in sales each year, but the net is only 30-40 percent of that, giving the family a modest income.

Foggy River Farm is looking for people who will sign up early for their CSA with a $50 deposit. They usually have about 80 CSA members, which they hope to expand this spring. Contact them at foggyriverfarm.org.

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