On the morning of May 1, rain had already started to fall when trucks packed with fresh produce set out from the Avalon Acres farms near Hohenwald, Tennessee. The season of farmers' markets and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) had begun, with locavores across the state eagerly anticipating months of fresh sustainably grown food. May Day marked the first pickup day for members of Avalon's CSA, as trucks rumbled off to distribution sites in Middle Tennessee.
The rain grew more intense. Tim and Jennifer Bodnar, who own and operate the farm, watched as a creek swelled into a river that began to erode the pasture. Avalon's drivers called; people weren't picking up the produce because they were trapped by the rising water.
"At that point, with those reports coming in, I wasn't able to fully grasp what was going on in the whole area," Tim Bodnar says. The calls kept coming. Tim turned on the television and saw that the damage extended far beyond his own backyard.
The Cumberland River rose and invaded riverside areas, including downtown Nashville and Clarksville. The Harpeth River submerged Bellevue homes. Cars floated down the street near the Nashville Farmers' Market. People were swept away, stranded, evacuated, and rescued.
More than a foot of water fell in 48 hours, causing more than $1.5 billion in property damage. Waterlogged Nashville institutions like the Grand Ole Opry grabbed immediate headlines, but the rains also flooded farms—both conventional operations and smaller, community-supported farms like Avalon and Bells Bend—across central Tennessee and Kentucky. Floodwaters drowned equipment and wiped out roads, but the bulk of the damage was to the crops and farmland, according to Pettus Read, director of communications at the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation.
In general, "the damage to farms wasn't primarily to livestock," Read says. "Most of damage that was done was to crops that were already planted." For conventional operations, this means corn and soybean crops were heavily damaged, and farmers have to decide whether to cut their losses or replant.
For farms like CSAs that rely on subscribers, this also means many early summer vegetable crops have been wiped out. "The creek that runs next to our main gardens rose from about 15 feet wide to 300 feet wide, flowing through a few of our gardens," says Eric Wooldridge, farm manager of Bells Bend Farms, just north of Nashville. "It wiped out our earliest summer planting of vegetables." In addition, he says, the floods took away several inches of topsoil and much of their compost, and recovering that soil could take awhile. "It's going to be a long process for those fields."
With the occasional exception, like a cow stranded on a roof, reports were the same. Pastures, roads, tractors, and buildings were underwater.
Farmers have already started to rebuild. Wooldridge says he has received offers of help from volunteer organizations as well as their CSA members. "The response has been great. We've had several members that offered to help in any way they can, to clean up and work," he says. "That's been incredible."
Avalon Acres asked CSA members to pay for the first week of food, even if they didn't receive it, to help cover the $23,000 in damages. Bodnar says only a handful of members protested, but most were eager to help—and many sent in additional donations.
Read says aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, will cover damage to houses and buildings, but "farm crops do not fall under FEMA." Some farmers do have crop insurance, but it won't cover all the losses sustained when such a heavy flood comes through town. As a result, farmers can apply for loans and other forms of assistance from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Read says farmers and government officials are working to put a price tag on damage to crops and determine the amount of aid.
Aid is also coming in from other sources. Agricultural giant Monsanto donated $50,000 to the Tennessee Farm Disaster Relief Fund. The fund was established in 2008 to help farmers who suffered heavily losses during tornadoes in February of that year.
Farmers are now looking forward to moving on. At Bells Bend, Wooldridge's outlook is organic—bordering on Zen. "This happens," he says. "People farm these river bottoms because they're the most fertile places. You just take the risk that every once in a while you're going to lose everything and rebuild, but that's what replaces nutrients in the soil."