Friday, April 19, 2019

Food After the Flood

I live in farm country, so I hear a lot about the effects of the floods on the soil — farmers rely on their ground for their income, so it’s a common (and very complicated) subject of discussion. Once the dikes and levees have been repaired and the river starts to behave, landowners will be busy getting their fields back in shape for producing the crops on which we all rely.

Scraping off the sand and silt to get down to real soil is the first step, followed by filling any channels or ruts cut by the running water and burning or removing the debris left by the receding water. New soil surveys will be taken to determine what kinds of fertilizer are needed, and whether contaminants are present. A lot of fields won't get planted this year because they’re still under water, fully a month after the flood.

Flood water is a lot dirtier than normal river water. Once the water comes out of the river banks, it will start to pick up contaminants from various sources that the river normally doesn’t access:
  • Waste treatment plants are usually close to rivers, and when they get flooded, they add raw or untreated sewage to the flood waters.
  • Livestock and wildlife drowned by the flood will decompose and add some nasty biologicals to the mix.
  • Farm sheds and barns tend to collect leftover chemicals, so if the buildings get flooded, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and all of the solvents and other chemicals needed to work on large equipment will likely end up in the flood water.
  • The fluids in all of those vehicles now under water have to go somewhere. Fuel and oils are lighter than water, and will be carried a long way downstream. Most farms also have fuel tanks for equipment, normally 500-1000 gallons each; these can leak or rupture (when they try to float) and spill their contents into the flood waters.
  • Look around at local businesses. We have entire towns under water, so anything stored or used by the various industrial companies can end up in the flood water, too.
Unsafe Foods
One of the local delicacies around here is the morel mushroom. Since morels grow well on the land near the rivers, a lot of the prime mushroom hunting ground got inundated by the recent floods, and that has led to warnings about eating them this year. Anything that has come into contact with flood waters is unsafe to eat unless you can remove the chemical and biological contaminants present in the water, and as you can see by the picture of a common morel, with all those nooks and crannies, there is just no way to thoroughly clean them.

Also considered unsafe to eat this year are all root crops grown in soil that was covered by flood water: carrots, radishes, beets, onions, etc. are all likely to be contaminated by the soil in which they are growing. Good Friday is the traditional time to start planting potatoes, but they’re not going to be planted in a lot of gardens this year; either those plots are still under water, or they have yet to be sanitized of the contaminants.

The last of the potentially dangerous foods includes any crop that lies on the ground. Melons, strawberries, and the like are simply at high risk of picking up too much crap to be safe to eat.

Safe Foods
Things that are safe to plant and eventually harvest are the foods that grow well above the dirt: peppers, tomatoes, corn, and anything else with a sturdy stalk or stem that keeps the fruit off the ground. To be safe, discard the fruit or vegetable if its weight caused the plant to bend until the fruit touched the ground (think vine-type plants such as tomatoes that might escape their supports). Wild berries and fruits will be safe by the time they mature if the plant survived the flood itself.

Believe it or not, trees can drown if their roots are under water for more than a few days, so pay attention to your trees; even if they don’t bear fruit or nuts, your shade tree next to the house could come down in the next storm because it died in the flood.

Mother nature will take care of most of the contamination, but it takes time. A full year of sunlight, microbial action, and aeration will clean up the soil and get it ready for next year, but anything you can do to help, like tilling the soil to expose more of it to light and air, will speed up the process and assure the quality of the soil for the next growing season.

Food spoilage is one of the lingering effects of a flood that doesn’t get much attention. If you’re planning on growing your own food, the soil near a river is usually some of the best you can find, but if it gets hit by a flood, you could easily lose a year’s worth of production.  If you are scavenging for food, watch for signs of recent flooding, and choose your edibles with care.

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