Dittmar in ‘holding pattern’ after flood
FELTON, Del. — One night in early September, Zachary Dittmar went to bed, aware of a weather forecast predicting an inch or two of rain.
Put simply, the weather report was wrong.
“When I woke up in the morning it looked like our farm was a lake,” he said.
As many as 8 inches of rain had fallen on Dittmar’s 40-acre family farm in Kent County. The result was disastrous. Some parts of the farm were submerged under 4 feet of water. The flood seeped into the engine of a 3-week-old tractor. Turkeys drowned. Fall crop vegetables were ruined. All told, the farm took a $30,000 hit overnight.
“It really put us in a bad position headed into the winter,” he said.
It was a major blow for the modest organic operation the Dittmar family started from scratch on a backyard garden patch after attending an accelerated farm school at Delaware State University in 2016. Over four years, the Dittmars grew the business into a thriving retail farm serving a growing community of customers through a CSA and their website.
Dittmar, 36, had gotten himself out of the school bus he was driving and the Walmart distribution center where he labored while launching his farm. He’d attained his dream of being a full-time farmer ahead of schedule, selling assorted produce, pastured turkeys and even goat’s milk soap made by his wife, Jenny.
The flood reversed some of that, and he’s been working his way back since. He took a second, seasonal job at UPS. His former school bus company also took him back, thankfully. There was belt-tightening at home.
“Some things we just had to go without,” he said. “Fortunately we have very little debt so we were able to squeak it out.”
He launched a GoFundMe page where nearly 50 supporters donated more than $4,000. Insurance wasn’t a great help; he said he’d had too much trouble getting it. Insurers either said his farm was too small or his operation (and its location) was too risky.He hadn’t been greatly concerned about lacking flood insurance. The Dittmars had experienced heavy rainfalls at the farm, even a hurricane, without issue.
Then the flood came.
“It was shock and disbelief, brother,” he said. “Our sheep and our goats were up to their necks. They were almost drowned. Our cattle were up to their chest in water.”
He and his wife quickly moved the sheep and goats to the only dry place on the farm — right next to their house, where they set up a series of temporary holding pens. The cattle were able to find higher ground.
Neighbors who had lived there for decades said they’d never seen flooding so bad, he said. Dittmar wanted to know why.
“A big part of the problem was (a nearby) culvert was not functioning properly, so I got down in the water and cleaned everything out,” he said. “It functioned a little better.”
After contacting several agencies, such as the NRCS and Kent Conservation District, it became clear that the 18-inch culvert, maintained by a railroad company, was poorly maintained and incapable of channeling the millions of gallons of water that fell on the Dittmars’ farm, he said. He also believes clear-cutting of nearby woodlands for housing developments have contributed to the problem.
He would like permission from the state to clean out nearby ditches and build a retention pond that would relieve the culvert during heavy rains, but that’s tied up in a bureaucratic dispute. It could also take the railroad company considerable time to fix the culvert.
“We’re just in a holding pattern, waiting on other people to do their jobs,” he said.
For the first several years, the Dittmars weren’t worried about flooding. Now, considering the region’s record rainfall over the last few years, he has little confidence that his farm will avoid serious flooding again.
“It really makes you think to yourself, ‘Do I really want to continue to raise chickens, knowing if we get, say, 5 or more inches there’s a good chance we’re going to lose a couple hundred chickens at a time because they can’t swim, they can’t fly, and they’re in pens, so it’s not like they can walk away from the water,’” he said.
They’ve decided to narrow their expansion of the farm’s berry production. The risk is too great, and many of those perennials take several years to mature before they begin fruiting. Instead, the Dittmars are focusing on less risky annual produce.
Eventually, he plans to get off the bus again and back to full-time farming. And he hopes his story motivates growers and residents to advocate for young and small farmers.
“It’s going to take a majority of the population to wake up and say, ‘Hey, we need these small farms. These guys are doing a lot of good,’” Dittmar said. “‘They’re providing a great service. Let’s get behind them and support them. Let’s make it easier for them to get into farming instead of, you know, incredibly difficult, which is where it is right now.’”