Farmers have always lived with what the novelist Henry James called the “imagination of disaster”-the keen sense that there’s always something, anything, that can go wrong. In that long interval between sowing tiny seeds and reaping valuable crops, droughts, floods, plagues of pests, tumbling trees, ravaging beasts-all threaten your livelihood and haunt your dreams. But the last seven years have been ridiculous.
In 2005, the sixth-most powerful hurricane ever recorded blitzed into the Mississippi River Delta region, flattening $900 million worth of crops. Just two years after Katrina, a “500-year flood” visited the Midwestern corn belt-which, as the US Geological Survey pointed out at the time, marked the second “500-year flood” in 15 years. In 2011, Texas suffered the most severe 12-month drought in its recorded history, resulting in a stunning $5.2 billion in crop and livestock losses, eclipsing the state’s previous record high in crop losses set just five years earlier. Then came last August’s Hurricane Irene, which deluged farmlands and destroyed crops from Puerto Rico to Canada, taking a particular toll on farmers in Vermont and New York State. This summer, farmers in the Midwest suffered the worst drought in a generation-which cut into crop yields and sparked yet another global hunger crisis. And now comes unprecedented “superstorm” Sandy.
It’s still too early to assess the damage exacted by Sandy on farms. It will likely be lighter than the other catastrophes listed above, both because farmers had ample warning to prepare for it, and because summer crops, for most farms the year’s highest-value plantings, have already been harvested (although many farms still have plenty of winter-season vegetables and farm animals at this time of year.)