Disaster Planning for the Small Farm

Disaster planning ahead of time can help you prevent emergency situations from turning into disasters.

Emergency Planning Opener

Lightning streaks across a stormy sky behind a red-roofed white barn and farmhouse.

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The summer of 2011 threw my small backyard Nebraska farm for a loop: The swelling Missouri River was spilling over its banks, putting my 50 laying hens, two Dexter cattle, one pregnant milk goat, and five children in danger of having to move out quickly. The news that “it could get bad” was not comforting. No timeline was given for moving, but being three miles from the river’s original bank made disaster a possibility. While we were ultimately able to remain until the water receded to its normal level, we scrambled to prepare a makeshift battle plan in case levees didn’t hold. Disaster can strike at a moment’s notice wherever you are, and living out in the beautifully isolated country often leaves one more susceptible to danger in emergency situations; help isn’t always just around the corner. Here is what we learned, along with some expert advice for keeping your cool when drafting an evacuation plan.

Don’t wait until it gets bad to start disaster planning

Human beings are procrastinators. We live busy lives and like to delay negative thinking and planning for the unexpected. Waiting until the danger is at your door, however, isn’t just naive, it can be costly. In the process of trying to load up our livestock and get everything to safety last June, we learned just how expensive last-minute accommodations for our animals and possessions can be. Having a plan in place not only ensures you will be able to meet your emergency goals, it also helps you avoid costly decisions made when you’re desperate for a solution.

Whether your area of the country is plagued by tornadoes, blizzards, floods, or an occasional power outage, it’s best to have a strategy in place months before disaster could potentially strike. Start planning in winter for the summer swells of the river. Use the high-noon hours in July to find a solution for icy disruptions to your electricity. Once the emergency hits, it’s often too late to take advantage of many of the solutions discussed below.

Make a livestock inventory list — and check it twice

Inventory isn’t just useful for household possessions and real property. Keeping a running tally of your livestock and farm equipment is a necessary component for making insurance claims and keeping everything together in the face of an evacuation.

Cathryn Castle Whitman, who, along with her husband, Marcus Whitman, owns Good Fortune Farms in Oregon, recommends that all animals be tagged with numbers and/or names, as well as photographed with their name for easy identification. (Picture an animal mug shot that even someone unfamiliar with your farm could use to help during an emergency.) If an evacuation ever occurs, a livestock inventory sheet can provide a useful means of “checking off” animals as they are transported. Keep this documentation in a binder that will be easy for everyone to access in the event of an emergency — especially if something happens at your farm while you are away.

Obviously, that’s not to say every small farmer out there should put eartags on every head of cattle she owns, or mark every pig. Ideally, multiple people would be involved with the animals on the farm and be familiar enough with each animal to know them all by name and be able to run down a mental checklist of the animals at a moment’s notice, but that’s totally dependent on the number of animals calling your place home.

In addition, there are some basic tips for your house and office that come in handy to help mitigate losses. Bill Begal, president of Begal Enterprises Inc. Disaster Restoration Specialists, a national company based in Rockville, Maryland, recommends the following for protecting the business side of your farming operation:

• Keep receipts and any paper documentation needed to file an insurance claim together in a fireproof safe.

• Back up all digital and computer data for your farm and home off-site; consider using a cloud service that stores your information in a secure, virtual manner and allows you to access it from anywhere.

• Keep your electronics in a well-ventilated area of the room, off the floor; make sure pets and moisture are not allowed near them.

• As many offices and farm shops are in the basement or in outside sheds, check the drainage and stairs often (especially as storm season approaches) to avoid water damage to your valuable documents and equipment.

• Keep all portable electric gadgets charged; a hand-crank radio is recommended for longer periods with no power. Other options include a power source with a cigarette plug to charge a laptop, camera or cell phone in your car without running down the battery. Many charging systems also come with a small solar panel charger.

• Consider labeling your phone system, server, main computer or other necessary electrical systems. If you find that you need to use a small portable generator (to only be used in a well-ventilated area), labeling will make it faster to disconnect and reconnect your main systems into an extension cord and get power.

While the process of preparing can seem overwhelming, tackling just one task a week can go a long way towards completing your disaster planning goals.

Be sure you’re insured

Insurance has historically never been one of those financial tools that surprise us by paying for more than we expected, and policies designed to cover disasters are no different. In our case, we only learned that our policy omitted flood protection after the flooding began in our area. By that time, it wasn’t too late to buy a policy, but any damage would have been caused by “an event in progress,” leaving us with no compensation for losses.

Depending on the type of policy you own and the coverage needs you are expecting, you may find that raising coverage limits or adding policy riders is the only way to cover a major loss to your home and farm. Talk to your insurance agent to find the policy package that works best for you.

Form an alliance

We learned the hard way that it’s necessary to seek out friends and neighbors well in advance of a disaster. While we were able to arrange for a friend in the hills to keep our cows and another friend across the state to board the goat and chickens, frenzied phone calls and late-night Facebook chats could have been avoided by asking in advance.

“Don’t wait for hard times before you seek out people who need help and can help you. Meet your neighbors and know what resources are available nearby. Compile a call list (and load numbers into your cell phone) of folks who have livestock and arrange in advance to work together,” says Cathryn Castle Whitman.

It’s also important to make sure that all of your animals are up-to-date on vaccinations and other medical treatments to prevent them from being a burden on their host families during a relocation. The last thing you want is to end up with no home for your flock because they aren’t healthy enough to room with a neighbor. Documentation of preventative care should be maintained in the event that your livestock must reside on someone else’s farm; they may need it to keep in compliance with any regulations placed on them — especially if they are a larger farming operation.

The hard truth about disasters

One of the toughest decisions we made during our flood scare was which part of our farm to leave behind if the waters came faster than we could be ready. While it’s never easy or fun to place a “value” on your livestock and possessions, it’s necessary. Cathryn Castle Whitman shares her method for dealing with this dreaded task by suggesting that all animals are given a value in dollars and cents. An example she gives: “If you own three horses and have a two-horse trailer, you must be able to decide in an instant which two get hauled first, and which one gets to wait.” Of course, beloved animals that have taken up residence in your heart may always be given higher priority than even the most valuable stock. Ultimately, the decision you make is the one you will have to live with — not an insurance adjuster.

Another truth is that some of your disaster planning may fall through before the big event. Despite your best efforts, neighbors may not be available, for example, or flood or fire evacuation routes might be congested or made impassable by blowing smoke or rising floodwaters. It is best to develop multiple contingency plans over time, so that when some of them fail, you know how to react to protect your family and farm.

While thinking about an emergency can cause fear and anxiety, a little discomfort now can prevent overwhelming loss down the road. Being prepared for every possible scenario just isn’t possible. Some events are so random or catastrophic, most disaster planning won’t be effective. Start by planning for what’s most common in your region, and you’ll be best prepared for the majority of things that can, and do, go wrong.

The flood of 2011 left my family disorganized, yet thankful. Our animals came back home with just one casualty — the loss of the pregnant goat, who left behind a beautiful female kid. While there were many things we could have done differently, we will have more opportunities to try again. The Missouri River is fickle, and we expect it to rise and fall each year. If anything was gained from the frantic packing, sleepless nights, and dread of the inevitable, it was this: We realize that a very small hobby farm is the most we want to take on right now. The responsibility — and joy — is sufficient for our simple lives.  

Born and raised in a small Nebraska town, Linsey Knerl is a homeschooling mother of five who enjoys blogging and working hard on her 3 1/2-acre Nebraska homestead.