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Flooding damages organic farmers' crops

/ Source: The Associated Press

Richard de Wilde estimates he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars this week when a foot of rain inundated his organic beef and vegetable farm in southwestern Wisconsin.

"Out of our 100 acres of vegetables, we had easily 30 under water," de Wilde, one of the state's largest organic farmers, said in a phone interview Tuesday. "If that was all a loss, it's $300,000. I'm thinking we're going to be able to salvage some out of there, but certainly it's more than $200,000 just counting crops."

He'll also have to replace fences, equipment and other water-damaged property at the 200-acre Harmony Valley Farm.

The damage from this week's floods could push some of Wisconsin's organic farmers out of business and affect the price of organic products nationwide. Only California has more certified organic farms than Wisconsin, and more than a third of the Badger State's 994 organic farms are in the five counties where rivers and streams overflowed.

Organic farms in southeast Minnesota and northeast Iowa were affected by the rain as well.

Mark Kastel, co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy group, said many farmers could be forced out of business, unable to cover their losses because crop insurance might not pay them the same price they would have received for selling their products at market.

"You could see a farmer who is making a modest profit and doing fine pushed into a very serious financial deficit for this growing year," Kastel said.

Along the swollen Kickapoo River, more than a third of the Crawford County's 1,000 farms had significant damage and early estimates peg the crop loss at around $8 million, said University of Wisconsin extension agent Vance Haugen.

"I've been here 15 years, and this is one of the strongest and most violent episodes I've ever seen," he said.

In Winona County, Minn., agriculture officials said the storms could set back organic cattle farming, which has grown in popularity in recent years.

"We have a lot of steep, hilly country and we've had a lot of mudslides," said Tom Van Der Linden, the local University of Minnesota extension educator. "The biggest problem we've had is mudslides that have taken out fences and livestock have gotten loose."

Jack Hedin, who owns an 80-acre family produce farm in and around Rushford, Minn., said portions of his fields remain under water, and that roads have washed out, making it impossible to deliver produce to local co-ops.

"It will be days if not weeks until the roads are repaired," he said.

Hedin said nearly a third of the farm's entire cash flow for 2007 has been washed away.

"I spent all morning with our bookkeeper, and at this point we've already written off $200,000 worth of produce," he said.

Even where the water has receded in Wisconsin and Minnesota, many fields are too moist to plant such fall vegetable crops as mixed greens and spinach. The window for planting those crops will close by the first week of September. Farms that cannot get the water off their fields fast enough will have less produce to sell in 2008.