If one sector is prepared for trouble it is farmers.
Northeastern farmers would like the public to know something about the largest power outage in U.S. history: because they were prepared, the nation's food supply never flagged.
Past disasters – some of which were devastating to farmers – have taught farmers how to cope with power outages. Their experience served them well earlier this month, said Llewellyn Zehr, chair of the Mennonite Disaster Service New York Unit.
"Most of them learned their lesson during the ice storm of '99," he said.
The '99 ice storms caught farmers off guard when transmission lines came down and interrupted power supply for operations that depend on electricity to care for animals. During the blackout, many of those same farmers switched over to generators purchased after the storm of '99.
These days New York's farmers are used to losing power unexpectedly, added Jessica Chittenden, spokesperson for the New York Department of Agriculture. "All of our dairy farmers now have power generators," she said.
Like New York's farmers, the majority of Connecticut's farmers have standby electricity, said Bruce Gresczyk, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, recalling an ice storm in November that downed power for up to three days in some parts of the state.
"If one sector is prepared for trouble it is farmers," said Mark Anthony, communications director for the Ohio Department of Agriculture. "They are the sector that's most likely to have backup power capabilities."
The farmers that Ohio state agriculture officials canvassed during the blackout either had backup power up immediately or it worked within a couple of hours, said Anthony.
For livestock, poultry and dairy farms, it's crucial to have ventilation and water pumps for animals, as well as a way to hold perishable food at a safe temperature.
"There is a lot at stake financially," said Anthony.
Smaller farm operations usually have a generator that hooks up to a tractor, said Kevin Kirk, who owns a small dairy farm and beef operation in Lansing, Mich.
"A larger operation will have a stand-alone generator."
During an emergency, farmers also tend to check on their neighbors, Kirk said. "Farmers are usually well connected within coops and other farm organizations. If one part of a farm community goes down, others help.
"It's a mental thing," he said. "Yes, they're competing against each other but when an emergency comes up, it's 'hey, how do I help my neighbor out?' You grow up with that mentality."
One other preparedness tip Kirk wanted to share with the general public was, if you own a generator, start it up several times a year. "It's like maintaining a fire insurance policy and hoping you don't have to use it," he said. "Run a generator several times a year to make sure it's working. It's not good for the engine to not run. Before you know it, three years will go by."
Farmers are constantly producing for consumption every day, added Kirk.
"Had the blackout gone for much longer, I'm afraid people would have gotten hysterical and made a run on food at the supermarkets," he said. "We're just very fortunate."
Before Detroit – one of the cities slowest to regain power – got its electricity back, federal officials consulted Kirk and other Michigan farmers about how the city would cope with food- and water-related issues. "We were working on game plans," said Kirk.
One lasting effect from the blackout that still may affect farmers: fuel prices could temporarily rise, added Gresczyk.
Food safety tips
Adapted from the Michigan Department of Agriculture
People should keep food safety in mind during power outages, said Michigan Department of Agriculture Director Dan Wyant.
"Basic food safety precautions are important to keep in mind during or after power outages," Wyant said. "Residents should pay special attention to the drinkability of tap water and foods in refrigerators or freezers."
To obtain the most recent, location-specific water safety information and advisories, contact your water utility or listen/watch for media reports. Residents on private wells may contact their local health department.
Consumers need to be aware of food safety measures in the home, he added.
If your refrigerator loses power, only open refrigerator doors when absolutely necessary to keep the cold inside. A full, freestanding freezer will stay at freezing temperatures about two days; a half-full freezer about one day. If your freezer is not full, group packages together so they form an "igloo" protecting each other. And if power may be out several days, try to use dry ice. Twenty-five pounds of dry ice should hold a 10-cubic foot full freezer three to four days.
Consumers should also remember to check items in their refrigerators and freezers during a power outage. General food safety standards indicate that potentially hazardous foods (meats, fish, poultry, all dairy products, all eggs and egg products, soft cheeses, custards, puddings, and cooked beans, rice, potatoes, pasta, and potato/pasta/ macaroni salads, etc.) should be stored at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or less. For every hour foods are kept above that temperature, the risk of food borne illness increases. Always discard anything that turns moldy or has an unusual odor or look and remember: "when in doubt, throw it out."
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