Local leaders in communities affected by Tropical Storm Irene are urging farmers and gardeners to take precautions as they prepare their fields for the next growing season.
Susan Richards, clerk to the supervisor in the town of Jay, told the Enterprise that some local gardeners had asked about how to deal with vegetable fields that sustained major flooding. In some cases, flooded septic systems and oil spills contaminated gardens and fields, presenting a potential health risk down the road.
"They were concerned regarding personal gardens," Richards said. "Could they still plant? Was it safe? Is it still toxic?"
One local resident, Michelle Trumbull, asked in a recent addition of Jay Community News what happens next year when people start planting in their gardens.
"Will that dirt actually decompose enough and be safe enough to plant in by then?" Trumbull asked.
Richards brought those questions to Essex County Soil and Water Conservation and received some interesting answers.
"There are different issues regarding food and soil after a flood," she said, pointing to a white paper authored by Steve Reiners, associate professor in horticultural sciences at Cornell University.
Reiners wrote about two types of flooding, both of which can impact fruits and vegetables.
The first type of flooding, which is the most common, occurs when a field becomes saturated with water from heavy downpours. Reiners wrote that water pools on the soil surface, leading to reduced yields. In some cases, over-saturated fields can lead to crop die-offs "but usually will not result in contamination of produce with human pathogens," Reiners said.
The second type of flooding involves runoff from streams and rivers, which is what happened when the AuSable River and its tributaries spilled its banks on Aug. 28. That kind of flooding, Reiners said, does more than just kill crops and reduce yield - it can flood septic systems and cause fuel spills, creating a situation where fruits and vegetables become contaminated with human pathogens and chemicals.
"Unless you are absolutely sure that flooding is not from streams and surface water, do not use fruits and vegetables that were at or near harvest at the time of flooding," Reiners explained.
Anita Deming of Cornell Cooperative Extension told Richards that contaminants don't just spoil crops; they also seep into the soil, potentially jeopardizing future planting. But Deming also said the toughest communicable diseases, such as giardia and cryptosporidia, die off in about six months.
Deming said gardeners and farmers need to be especially vigilant when it comes to oil or industrial contaminants, as they may take more time to break down in the soil.
Richards said anyone with questions or concerns should contact Cornell Cooperative Extension's Essex County office at 518-962-4810.