Historic March flooding has some gardeners weary of potential food borne illness in homegrown produce

Historic March flooding has some gardeners weary of potential food borne illness in homegrown produce
The Crete Community Garden, despite being near some of the flood water from the Big Blue River in March, has been deemed ready to go for the new growing season.

FAIRBURY – The historic flooding in Nebraska this year has had lasting impacts on thousands residents across the state – those impacts vary in severity, depending on where you are in the state.

Southeast Nebraska was spared, comparatively, but the region wasn’t entirely untouched. The Big Blue River in Beatrice closed two major roads, and the same river reached new, historic highs upstream in Crete.

As the weather has warmed and precipitation has subsided, the rivers and streams are back in their banks. But, with spring comes a new growing season. The recent flooding has many wondering – how does this affect my garden?

“We are starting to get some gardening questions now that the weather has warmed up,” said Scott Evans, who’s the horticulture program coordinator with the Nebraska Extension Office in Douglas and Sarpy Counties.

“The clean-up has now moved from outdoors, versus indoors.”

The biggest risk, according to Evans and other experts, is the potential for food borne illness from pathogens like E. Coli, Salmonella and others. Young children, pregnant women and the elderly are particularly at risk.

Horticulturists recommend a waiting period between when the flood waters recede and when produce is harvested. Plants can be sown during that waiting period, but harvest should wait until that period is over.

Even then, pathogens can persist in soil for several years. But, Evans said there’s still a more safe option.

“A lot of our vegetables can be grown in containers,” Evan said. “That can be an option for someone wanting to wait out 2019 and not put anything in the ground. Tomatoes, cucumbers, or whatever, can still be planted in a container.”

Research shows that the health risk from non-composted manure is higher than that from flood water, so the recommendation to wait is considered a smart starting point for garden safety.

For crops that do not have direct contact with the soil, like tomatoes, peppers and beans, the waiting period between flooding and harvest should be at least 90 days.

For crops that do have direct contact with soil (lettuce, leafy greens, root crops), the waiting period should be at least 120 days.

Food that comes from perennial plants like rhubarb, asparagus, fruit trees etc. should also be subjected to the waiting period.

In the event that flooding occurs in actively growing gardens, any produce that is touched by flood water should be disposed of.

If your garden is flooded, and certain plants remain untouched by the contaminated water, those plants can remain. But, it’s recommended that no produce be harvested from flooded fields until after the waiting period has passed – even from areas untouched by flood water.

If your garden is flooded during the growing season, you’re encouraged to discard any plants that are consumed raw, like leafy greens, since there’s no proper way to completely get rid of all contamination.

If the edible portion of a plant, like a tomato, is untouched by flood water, these can be cooked for consumption after a thorough washing.

Overall, if you are in doubt, it’s best not to risk it.

“Industrial and agricultural chemicals in (flood water) are things we need to be concerned about,” Evans said, “and cooking won’t get rid of those.”

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