Usually, in mid-February Houston’s farmers are busy planting their hardy winter crops, like cabbages, turnips, and collard greens, ahead of the upcoming spring harvest. This year, though, unprecedented snowfall, freezing rain, and icy temperatures pose a dramatic threat to the city’s refugee-owned farms.
At Plant It Forward Farms, a nonprofit farming organization that helps resettled refugees establish their own local and sustainable urban farms in Houston, the losses are devastating. Along with the snow, extensive power outages, and burst pipes, this week’s weather has brought what is perhaps the single worst disaster the city’s urban farming community has faced in recent history.
“We typically enjoy a 52-week planting season here in Houston,” says Plant It Forward Farms president Liz Vallette. “We have the occasional hurricane, the occasional deep-freeze, but this is just on a different scale than we’re accustomed to. Based on how cold it was, and how long it was cold, I think we’re going to have 100 percent loss.” With that loss, the workers who sell their produce to Houston restaurateurs and diners via local farms markets face an uncertain future.
Farms affiliated with Plant It Forward heavily rely on a community supported agriculture program, or CSA, to maintain a steady flow of revenue into their businesses. The reliable stream of income allows the farmers to maintain their operations while making a living. In exchange, those enrolled in the CSA receive a box of fresh produce directly from the farm either weekly or biweekly, depending on the subscription they chose.
Now, though, it’s possible that there won’t be anything to put inside those CSA boxes when spring arrives. The winter storm’s disruption of those farms’ planting and growing schedules — typically planned months in advance — means that CSA subscribers won’t receive their fresh produce in the coming weeks as Plant It Forward’s farmers possibly replant their entire farms. Temperatures are rising, but by the time Houston’s soil thaws and the farmers are able to fully calculate their losses, order more seeds and plants, and replant their farms, it’s possible as many as four to eight weeks will have passed. The ongoing COVID-19 crisis may further complicate matters, with seed providers currently facing unprecedented demand thanks to the rise in at-home gardening during the pandemic.
While the CSA subscriptions bring a steady stream of revenue into each business, the farmers ordinarily also sell their products at markets to diversify their revenue streams and increase farm profits. “With the pandemic and actually with restaurants closing and then operating at limited capacity, the bulk of our sales now — probably 95 percent — are farm share subscriptions,” Vallette says. “This is where we’ll get to see how the community supported agriculture model works in a place like Houston where it’s not as well known as maybe other places of the country.”
Even if every CSA subscriber continues to pay Plant It Forward’s farmers without receiving fresh produce, the farms themselves will still be financially impacted since few small, organic urban farms rarely have crop insurance.
“There’s not an insurance product that works for our farmers’ farms,” Vallette says. “So we rely on the CSA model to be the insurance policy for the farmers, meaning that the subscribers share in the successes of the farm but they also share in the losses. This is where we really want to see the generosity of the customers and see if they’ll stick with us, basically paying the farmers each week even though they’re not receiving produce.”
In order to make up for these financial losses, Plant It Forward is currently hoping that it will be able to provide small grants so that the farmers can purchase supplies to plant replacement crops. The organization’s farmers may also decide to plant an abundance of cash crops in the now-empty plant beds for the coming nightshade season, including tomatoes and peppers. Crops that mature quickly, like radishes, may also be prioritized to help close these small farms’ supply gaps.
“It’s just going to be a tough next week or two,” Vallette said. “After Harvey, we kind of felt like we made lemonade out of lemons. We just kind of just cleared the devastated beds and were able to clean the farms up and have an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and say, ‘Okay, well let’s make the best out of this.”