Food Lessons From the Great Flood of 1862

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John feeding his cows in Brookfield, Vermont on Oct 27, 2022

Little discussed in this age of raging California forest fires devouring residential hillsides, and droughts that kill Californian lawns, is the unprecedented vulnerability to flood created by modern agricultural practices in the region. The Great Flood of 1862 is likely the worst natural disaster ever to strike that massive state, but destruction on that scale would be exponentially worse today.

The horrible flood of 1862 is largely lost to Americans’ collective memory. Killing fully a quarter of California’s livestock while inundating the state with rivers of muck from landslides that wiped out entire towns, a recurrence would today cause an estimated $1 trillion or more in damages. Climate scientists argue that there is a doubled risk of an even greater precipitation event in the relatively near future.

One popularized study named this potential event an “Arkstorm,” in an ironic twist — the name is not a reference to a biblical deluge in which people flock into arks, but to an “atmospheric river” of air that transports large amounts of water vapor that can suddenly translate into feet, not inches, of rainfall. A 2022 updated study has forecast an even greater risk, dubbed “Arkstorm 2.0,” that suggests a recurrence of the Flood of 1862 could be far worse than previously estimated. The geological record reflects that these storms occur in the California region every century or two, but that changes in regional weather patterns exacerbate the risks today. People generally view drought, earthquakes and wildfires as the great risks of California, but the dramatic increase in population since the Great Flood (of 1862, not Noah) make this threat exponentially more profound than even a split in the St Andreas Fault. And the risk is not California’s alone, since the nation depends on that state (and neighboring Arizona which would also be impacted) for such a huge proportion of its food production.

The first ArkStorm study concluded that a Great Flood recurrence would be too sudden to make it possible to evacuate the estimated 5-10 million impacted residents. The 2022 study estimates a 50% likelihood such a storm will recur by 2060, that it could be far more severe, and that it will be the largest natural disaster in world history. But the San Joaquin Valley has subsided nearly 30 feet in elevation since the last great California flood, ensuring yet another amplifier of impact on food production in the national breadbasket.

Regardless of when, or even whether, a cataclysmic storm recurs in the West, Vermonters concerned with food security will understand that diversifying back to local, diversified agricultural networks rather than a highly-concentrated agri-dependency on one very tiny, highly vulnerable bread basket that is alternately drying up or drowning out, is of great national interest. Add to this the escalating costs and threats of trucking or otherwise transporting all that produce to the East Coast, and there is a vital urgency to this regenerative and local agrarian mission.

Vermonters once capitalized on their verdant Green Mountains to grow fresh, high-quality foods for themselves and to supply nearby cities — especially Boston. That opportunity is being re-presented today, as spiking fuel and fertilizer prices make it more cost competitive and thus profitable for Vermont farmers to grow and sell food than has been the case for more than a century. This benefits not just local farms but the entire Vermont economy, including businesses that supply goods and services to those farms, and to other businesses that increase revenue when new income streams enter the state and enable people to dine out more frequently, build additions to their homes, or otherwise spend money they otherwise lack.

Let’s get farming!

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