The great flood of 2007 exposed both the vulnerability and resilience of Wisconsin's organic food movement.
The August deluge dumped as much as 26 inches of rain into the coulees of hilly southwestern Wisconsin, which is the heartland of the state's organic farming.
The floods washed out farm fields, destroyed equipment and buildings and deposited gravel and debris in what had been choice organic fields in the lowlands of the Kickapoo, Bad Axe and other rivers and streams.
"Some of the old-timers came down from the ridge and said they hadn't seen anything like this in 80 years," says Noah Engel of Driftless Organics.
The flood victims included the small organic farmers who sell at markets in Madison and Minneapolis, who serve thousands of subscribers with their seasonal CSA deliveries, who wholesale to grocery co-ops like Willy Street and to organic chains like Whole Foods, and who put gourmet organic vegetables on the plates of the best Midwest restaurants.
They got creamed. Engel's Driftless Organics in Soldiers Grove cites $250,000 in losses. Avalanche Organics in Viola suffered a reported $90,000 in losses and has suspended operation. Viroqua's Harmony Valley Farm lost a stunning $750,000.
No solid data on total flood damages exists, state agriculture officials admit. But one limited survey of Wisconsin vegetable growers found that 2/3 of the respondents reported crop damage, with the average loss equaling a full quarter of their annual income.
Worse, almost none of the organic farmers had federal crop insurance - a story in itself - and the few that did are having trouble collecting a meaningful reimbursement. It's a grim, grim scenario, except for one thing.
Organic consumers opened both their wallets and their hearts to help their favorite farmers. It's made a difference.
Harmony Valley's Richard de Wilde, with more than 30 years of successful organic farming under his belt, is one of the iconic figures of the Dane County Farmers' Market. But this fall, after 50 of his 100 acres were washed out in August and continuing rain kept him out of his fields, he wondered if his luck had finally run out.
"It was a little depressing around here," he says of his Crawford County farm. "I couldn't quite see how we were going to pull this off."
As it happens, Harmony Valley runs one of the largest Community Supported Agriculture programs in the state, with more than 1,500 families in Minnesota and Wisconsin subscribing to its deliveries. Those families rallied to help Harmony Valley.
"We got hundreds of small checks in the mail with these nice little notes," de Wilde recalls. "It was an amazing morale booster. Our own CSA members donated close to $50,000."
The Sow the Seeds Fund gave Harmony Valley another $47,000. The fund collected contributions from shoppers at Midwest grocery co-ops and at 23 Whole Foods stores and distributed almost $400,000 to 17 flood-stricken farmers in Wisconsin and to another 14 in Minnesota and Iowa.
"The organizers were dumbfounded by the size of the response," says de Wilde. "I wasn't surprised. I know how many really dedicated customers we and these other organic farms have."
Willy Street Co-op collected $3,896. Whole Foods gave a total of $86,000 to Sow the Seeds. Family Farm Defenders, a Madison advocacy group, collected another $5,000 for flood victims and gave it to three farms and seven suddenly jobless farm workers.
The outpouring of customer support demonstrates something important: Organic food is not just a burgeoning industry, but a burgeoning movement where consumers are committed to the success of organic farmers.
Josh and Noah Engel, second-generation organic farmers in Crawford County, will be farming this spring thanks to the grassroots help. "Our valley got the royal flush," Josh says. "We got hit hard."
The brothers, who farm with partner Mike Lind, lost $180,000 in produce and another $70,000 in equipment and buildings. Best known for its potato varieties, Driftless Organics is another Saturday Farmers' Market mainstay in Madison.
"We basically hit a lot of dead ends," Josh says of his efforts to secure federal aid. "There was no money for our type of operation."
In contrast, Sow the Seeds gave Driftless $40,000, Family Farm Defenders contributed $1,000, and another $4,500 was raised at a local benefit.
"If we didn't get that help, we would have had a huge downsizing this year," says Lind.
"That money allowed us to write our budget for 2008," says Josh Engel. "We're still going to be farming."
The lack of federal help is a touchy topic. Richard de Wilde, who knows the ins and outs of federal programs, has received only $16,000 in flood insurance, with the possibility of a small additional payment. That's a pittance against his $750,000 loss.
"With a discrepancy this great, it is obvious that that there is something really wrong here!" the impassioned farmer wrote federal ag officials.
The problem, most observers agree, is that federal farm programs are designed to serve huge commodity growers like Midwestern corn and soybean farmers. The economic underpinnings of these field-crop programs simply don't translate fairly to crop insurance for the small-plot, high-value plantings of organic farmers.
Fortunately, many of the farmers left in the lurch got help from their loyal customers - certainly a testament to the resiliency of the organic movement.
Madison filmmaker Gretta Wing Miller documented the flood damage in her video, "The Floods of August," web.mac.com/milhug/Downtown_Dailies/Home.html.
Wisconsin Public Television reporter Art Hackett provides another good look at the flood at www.wpt.org/npa/transcripts/index.cfm?did=29300.