Disaster Planning for the Small Farm

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


| July/August 2012



Emergency Planning Opener

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

Carson Ganci/Robertstock.com

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.





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