East Palestine train derailment still a public relations headache for nearby farmers
Nearby farmers are still struggling with the psychological impact of the train derailment in East Palestine more than three months later. And customers are still worried about whether local produce is safe.
Steve Montgomery and his wife own Lamppost Farm in Columbiana, just a few miles away from the site of the derailment. They raise cows, chickens and turkeys for meat and sell organic produce. Physically, the toxic train derailment didn’t have an impact on the farm.
“There were no effects that we saw here," Montgomery said. "Our cattle ate and drank as normal. Our chickens laid eggs and didn’t stop. They were doing OK.”
But the farm was negatively impacted by the bad publicity the area was getting.
“Initially we were knocked down pretty quickly," Montgomery said. "We saw about a 50% decrease in the first couple weeks, and if that projected, we were going to have to make hard decisions about cash flow and cutting staff and thinking about all the other things that were involved.”
Montgomery shared his story with U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, who visited Lamppost Farm to hear firsthand from Montgomery and other farmers about how they are faring after the train derailment.
Although things have begun to bounce back, the farm is still struggling, Montgomery said in a press conference after the private roundtable session.
“When we look at it as a trend, we’re still somewhat behind our normal," Montgomery said, "and we definitely haven’t hit the growth projections that we thought we would.”
Local customers have kept the business afloat, Montgomery said.
"Part of that was the marketing to say, 'Hey customers, we need you to keep buying from us,' and they want us to stay here and so they did," Montgomery said.
Despite soil sampling and other tests showing his farm was not impacted by the derailment, he still hears hesitation from customers about buying his products, like from his neighbor who suggested that an acquaintance buy produce from the farm.
"They said, 'Why don't you buy from our neighbors at Lamppost Farm?' And they said, 'No. That's close to East Palestine,'" Montgomery recalled. "Well that's not what we want to hear. That's not the true story. The true story is that these animals are still very healthy."
Now, the issue is just down to public relations, Montgomery said.
"It's a PR question, and I mean at this point we're saying all the testing has said we're in the clear," Montgomery said. "And, frankly, the kind of agriculture that we practice is a resilient agriculture."
The true test of how intrinsic East Palestine's negative reputation is will be seen by turkey season, Montgomery said.
"We have customers from Cleveland and Pittsburgh and all around for our turkeys," Montgomery said, "and we'll see if that continues, if we sell the amount that we have in the past."