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Looking ahead, western Mass. farmers weigh risks of planting in the fertile soil of a floodplain

Part of what's so painful for Liz Adler about losing 45 acres of farm crops is how much time and energy she and others at Mountain View Farm had put into fields, inundated earlier this week by the rising Connecticut River.

"They were really more beautiful than they've ever been," said Adler, who owns Mountain View Farm in Easthampton, Massachusetts, with her husband, Ben Perrault.

"There wasn't a weed to be seen in any of those fields," Adler said.

Between Monday and Tuesday this week, with the rain and the river rising, they were hopeful right up until the last minute, right until the water covered their feet and kept going.

Mountain View is one of many farms in New England — in western Massachusetts but also Vermont and Connecticut — that suffered catastrophic losses this week from the weather event.

Adler estimates they lost $650,000 in crops, summer vegetables ready to distribute and winter crops for storage.

"So all of our potatoes, all of our sweet corn, green peppers, hot peppers, our winter carrots, all of our tomatoes, all of our eggplant, celery, celeriac," Adler said. "I mean, I could just keep going. This is what I keep doing in my head over and over again."

Farmers are always hedging their bets, Adler said. "This year we just lost the bet."

The crops were planted on a floodplain, a flat area of land right next to a river. The soil is typically fertile and very productive. The fields, which Mountain View rents from the Massachusetts Audubon Society, have been a major source of their crop yield for customers, and for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

Along the Connecticut River, it's rare for these fields to flood in July.

"I do believe that this land should be farmed," Adler said, and it's something she and Perrault are talking about.

If there were any preventative measures to take, they would have taken them, she said.

"I think that if it's a once-in-every-50-year flood, then that is probably a risk that we would take and be transparent with our customers," she said.

Mountain View customers are largely "share holders." The farm runs as a CSA, a Community Supported Agriculture model. This year people paid pay for a 21-week season's worth of produce in advance — from $475 up to $865, depending on household size.

Customers also sign an agreement saying they understand there are risks associated with growing food.

"To some degree, we lose something every year. We grow like 200 different varieties of 50 different crops, so we always lose something," Adler said. "But this year is catastrophic and we're going to limp along and try to get through the season the best we can."

The farm has 2,000 share holders this summer. Because they've paid in advance and the money is there, Adler said, it's like having insurance and will help the farm in the immediate days keep paying employees. The farm has also asked for donations.

Once the water recedes from the floodplain fields, and more rain is expected this week, Adler said the cleanup of the fields will be considerable.

Disclosure: Mountain View Farm is an NEPM underwriter. The newsroom operates independently.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."