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Experts discuss how to improve disaster preparedness

By RICHARD SKELLY
AFP Correspondent

PRINCETON (Jan. 15, 2015) — While many small and family farmers may be hard-pressed to find a few hours in a week to plan for worst case scenarios, perhaps January and February are a good time to begin to assemble a disaster response plan.
Time spent reviewing procedures, checking fire extinguishers and making sure local emergency response personnel are familiar with your farm operation these next few weeks will be time well spent, said Jim Ochterski, formerly an agricultural Extension agent at Cornell University.
Ochterski and others shaped a program now in place there called “The Farm Disaster Preparation Certificate,” which allows many small and family farmers — there are 38,000 farms in New York state — discounts on their farm insurance.
Addressing the 96th annual meeting of the New Jersey Farm Bureau in Princeton on Nov. 17, Ochterski told an the crowd that farmers tend not to deal with problems they don’t have.
“So it is with disaster readiness: we’re asking you to take action on something that just isn’t on today’s chore list, so we’ve had to incentivize and induce a sense of urgency for disaster readiness,” Ochterski said, “the ag community and all these non-farmers are now living a closer-knit lifestyle.
“The non-farm people end up being very influential on everything we do: Imagine a 24-inch snow storm or debilitating ice storm or an outbreak of livestock disease or a wildfire, or any of the many other things that can happen. If you had the tools and knowledge and you’re ready for it and not nearly as impacted, that puts you in a stronger position to lend assistance to the community.”
By way of example, he offered the northern reaches of New York State, which got hit by a crippling ice storm in the winter of 1998. Power was completely out in the region for three to four weeks, Ochterski recalled.
“It killed a lot of family farms, it was just too much of a blow,” even farms out of power for a week or so spent months in recovery, he said.
“You want to be the farm that bounces back quickly,” he stressed.
He asked the audience: “There are so many different disaster scenarios: What would constitute a disaster on your farm?”
One audience member said a barn fire would be a disaster, while another said an extended power outage could be crippling while still another said an oil spill could be disastrous to his oyster beds.
Ochterski said many of these one-day seminars have been organized in New York state.
Farmers come to a central location and attend class for six hours where they review things like slow-moving farm vehicle safety issues, fire extinguisher operations, emergency call plans and how to make themselves known to the local disaster response teams.
One farmer in New York state invites the local volunteer fire department over once a year in a the spring for a pork barbecue and makes sure fire and first aid responders from his community are familiar with the street address and layout of his farm, giving them tours of various barns, chemical storage areas and other important buildings on the property.
Ochterski will work with the New Jersey Farm Bureau staff to set up a similar program here in the Garden State in coming months.
Farmers come out of the classes in New York state with a ‘Farm Disaster Preparedness Certificate.’
“We spend the first hour of class focusing on safety on the road, and we looked at what other farms do,” he said, showing slides of farm vehicles in dangerous positions on public roads.
On a two-lane road with a double yellow line in the center, he pointed out, “farmers get killed when a car tries to pass and another vehicle is coming down the opposite lane at 60 miles an hour.”
Other topics covered in disaster preparedness seminars in New York state include ice storms, tropical storms, hurricanes and rain events [as many upstate farmers suffered damage in 2011 from Tropical Storm Irene,] ; extended power outages, fires, chemical spills, maintaining good working relations with your local emergency response teams and even severe thunderstorms that can give birth to small tornadoes.
“Those six hours fly by and people write on their comment card: It’s a lot of common sense, but I’m so glad I got all the reminders,” Ochterski said.
In another example, Ochterski offered up fire extinguishers.
“A lot of us have fire extinguishers on our farms, but we don’t know where they are right now or if they’re charged. In a livestock barn, making the extinguisher really easy to find, making sure they’re conspicuous and near an exit, and assigning a person on the farm, on the first day of every month to make sure that all of them are charged up and ready to be used,” is something really simple that New Jersey farmers can do tomorrow, Ochterski argued. Use of fire extinguishers is also covered in the seminars, he said, since most people don’t need to use fire extinguishers very often.
Another suggestion: Take a few minutes to take photographs to document condition of equipment; this comes in handy when farm equipment is destroyed by a severe thunderstorm or some type of fire.
“If you take that step to invite emergency personnel out to your farm, you’re going to be one step ahead as far as disaster preparation is concerned,” he said, adding that farmers should see to it that they have 72 hours of potable water on hand.
“If you can be self-sufficient for 72 hours on your farm, you’re going to be well ahead of everyone else. And if you have extra stores of feed and supplies, you can also help disaster-proof other farms around you,” Ochterski added.