Rising Seas: Flooded farms likely

Steve Mason, whose Kent Island fields are on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay, says his land was spoiled by the floodwaters of Tropical Storm Isabel 10 years ago.

KENT ISLAND — Steve Mason had just planted a fresh crop of strawberries when Tropical Storm Isabel flooded his Kent Island farm in 2003. The storm wiped out $7,000 worth of crops and rendered the land unusable for years.

"I planted strawberries the following year; they didn't grow at all, and I've been trying to plant things out there every year," he said. "It's starting to come back a little bit, but I really don't get the production out of the ground that I should. That's what Isabel did."

For farmers like Mason who grow crops on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay, the proximity to the water makes them especially vulnerable to the impact of climate change.

By the end of the century, rising sea levels of 2 to 5 feet in the Chesapeake will submerge farms that have been passed down within families for generations.

Meanwhile, climate change is associated with an increase in the number and strength of hurricanes, increasing the likelihood of particularly damaging storms like Isabel. In September 2003, Isabel brought 6 to 8 feet of storm surge into the upper regions of the Chesapeake Bay and caused an estimated $410 million in damage when it passed over Maryland.

When Chesapeake water floods a farm field, it kills crops like corn and soybeans by choking the supply of oxygen to the roots. But the brackish water which is more saline than fresh water, but less saline than seawater deposits salt and other chemicals that remain in the soil for years.

The water leaves behind sulfate, which oxygen-starved bacteria process into sulfide, a substance which can be toxic to many crops. It also leaves behind salt, which makes it harder for crops to absorb water and nutrients.

"Water radically changes the chemistry of soil," said Philippe Hensel, a physical scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Geodetic Survey. "Farmers really suffer when they get a storm surge over the land because the salt tends to stay."

Since 2003, the soil on the section of Mason's property that was underwater has not been the same.

"I think it's because of salinity in the water," Mason said. "It spoiled the soil."

Crops he planted in that area in the years following the storm have failed to produce satisfactory yields. It took about six years for the field to get back to the level of productivity it had before Hurricane Isabel, he said. Mason is now trying to grow spring crops on part of that patch kale, spinach, beets, turnips and peas.

"I think the storms are definitely getting stronger and the tide is higher so it breaches our bulkhead more often. We're bound to get hit with another Isabel again it's going to happen," Mason said.

In nearby Kent County, farmer Trey Hill did not experience the kind of crop loss Mason did when Isabel hit, but he did face significant damage to his waterfront home.

When the storm surge flooded his home's entire first floor with about 4 feet of water, Hill was forced to demolish it and rebuild. The new home was elevated several feet on stilts because of local zoning restrictions and insurance company requirements, he said.

Hill is a fourth generation farmer and the owner of Harborview Farms, which he inherited from his father, Herman Hill. The company farms land in three Maryland counties.

On a 100-acre property in Rock Hall, Hill and 12 employees grow corn, wheat and soybeans and supply them to such large food producers as Perdue Farms Inc. Hill estimated that his farmland and fixtures, including a 60-year-old grain elevator, is valued at about $1.8 million.

Hill has also installed solar panels at Harborview Farms, reducing his dependence on fossil fuels, which are a prime driver of climate change.

"Our goal is to kind of become less energy dependent. We've put in solar panels and done minor stuff. But as far as impact on the world, I don't know that I will have any," he said.

Almost all of Hill's property in Rock Hall will be inundated if sea level rises by 5 feet, a Capital News Service analysis found. About half of it would be underwater if sea level rises by 3 feet.

"If most of my land was underwater, it would probably have an impact on — my house, my income, my farm, pretty much everything that I live and breathe," Hill said.

For Hill, sea-level rise is not an immediate enough threat to warrant building a seawall or to take other steps to protect his land.

"I would be proactive, but it would have to become more severe than it is now," he said of the long-term climate model predictions. "I don't know what I'd do. Maybe move or something."

In Kent County, Tot Strong's family has owned large tracts of land in this county for more than 400 years. Their original land grants were issued by the king of England.

Today, Strong, 55, grows corn and soybeans on more than 2,000 acres of land, including on his mother's property. Mildred Strong, 93, lives at Trumpington Manor, a farmhouse that overlooks a large salt marsh along the Bay.

The brick home sits atop a hill surrounded by outbuildings and barns. A family of osprey makes its home on a nesting platform at the end of the driveway. A small cemetery lies to the left of the porch, with gravestones of Strong's ancestors going back generations.

Strong's husband, a Navy pilot, was the last person buried here in 2004. Strong maintains the property with help from her son.

Someday her children will inherit Trumpington Manor, but portions of the property are at risk from climate change.

"I can't say I'm not concerned, but I don't know what I can do about it," Tot Strong said. "You know, it's going to happen from time to time. You've got your 100-year storms and your 500-year storms. When they're due, they're due, I suppose."

But at the moment, long-term sea level rise is still a dot on the horizon.

"But I don't know what any of us can really do about it."

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