By DOUG GRAVES
FRANKFORT, Ky. — The historic flooding that occurred last summer in eastern Kentucky and central Appalachia left many producers in turmoil. Six days of continuous rain between July 25-July 30 led to 39 deaths and widespread damage. Entire homes and parts of some communities were swept away by flood waters. More than 600 helicopter rescues and countless swift water rescues by boat were needed to evacuate people trapped by the rising waters.
Areas hit hardest were the counties of Clay, Owsley, Breathitt, Leslie, Perry, Knott, Letcher and Knott. Farm damage estimates from 138 producers in the affected region totaled nearly $3.2 million in immediate losses, plus future losses were estimated at more than $1.3 million, mainly in crop and infrastructure losses.
This prompted Kentucky Horticulture Council (KHC) Executive Director Cindy Finneseth to want to take action. She and her staff wanted to help produce growers in the area recover. “We struggled with what we could do because you want to something helpful,” Finneseth said.
In August, KHC and partner organizations met with stakeholders in the area with the goal of getting local produce growers back into production. Even before the flooding, Eastern Kentucky suffered from limited supplies of fresh, high-quality produce from local growers.
“We started brainstorming immediately after the disaster to see what kind of resources could be pulled together to assist growers,” she said. “Our biggest fear was that people would go out of business in an area that is already food insecure with limited access to fresh produce. We didn’t want to lose a single grower.”
One critical immediate need was identified: inoperable small-scale equipment, such as tillers, chainsaws, and mowers powered by small engines. This led KHC to create the EKY Farm Equipment Flood Damage Repair Program with funding from Kentucky Farm Bureau. The purpose of this program is to mitigate the impacts of flooding for local producers by coordinating pickup of critical pieces of equipment. In doing this, Finneseth and her partners reached out to several high school vocational agriculture education programs in Kentucky to help perform that needed equipment service and repair, a service which is ongoing to this day.
“Every school we approached was very interested,” Finneseth said. “We would go into a county, collect what equipment was flood damaged, fix it, and take it back. This really helped the growers, plus the students got engaged. It gave the students the real-world experience to, maybe, open their own repair shop or small part-time repair business to pay for college, so it is a win-win all the way around.”
A secondary need for growers was that of hand tools. KHC worked to partner with equipment suppliers such as Premier Horticulture, Tractor Supply and others to help replace hand tools lost in the flooding or damaged beyond repair.
“Many of those things just washed away,” Finneseth said. “We worked with local businesses to put together a tool kit of basic, professional-grade hand tools using some of the Farm Bureau money.”
“Financing all this was our biggest challenge,” Finneseth said. “We approached Kentucky Farm Bureau and they gave us a generous donation of $25,000 to allow us to do this. Some of the equipment was repaired and taken back, while some of the equipment was not repairable. My biggest concern was to not overwhelm these vo-ag programs as they’re not professional commercial businesses.
“I think there are many valuable lessons that the students are learning. First is that they can contribute to the local community. With the skills they have, they can help people who’ve been impacted by the flooding and help growers get back into production. Also, the students are learning these diagnostic and repair skills they can use later in life or perhaps even in a business of their own.”
Jeffrey Shaffer is the horticulture teachers at Western Hills High School in Franklin County. That school is one of many with agriculture shop facilities that are being used in conjunction with this initiative. He said the students there were excited about being involved.
“I feel that they’re understanding more about community service, and I hope they carry this lesson well beyond high school, and they will get involved in other local activities like this in the future,” he said.
For certain, the EKY Farm Equipment Flood Damage Repair Program isn’t just a one-time venture.
“We feel we have a good model here and if we have another major event like this one we can once again make that connection between growers and vocational ag programs and lend a hand,” Finneseth said.