NORTHFIELD, Minn. – The tomatillos hang in small-green balls from the vine, water-logged. The chilies sprouting up in a mucky row are puny. The garbanzo: finished.

Floods killed these crops. But unlike the large corn and soybean spreads in south central Minnesota — dotted with ponds after historic June flooding — federal crop insurance covers none of these crops.

"Last year's harvest would fill baskets," said Erika Gomez of Tierra de Esperanza Farm, a quarter-acre operation on the grounds of Sharing Our Roots farm in rural Dakota County.

Gomez said in Spanish through a translator that one day last year, she and her partner picked 600 pounds of produce to sell at local markets. But now, she says with a wave of her hand, "It's gone."

The southern Minnesota floods last month drenched already-soggy fields across the region. The federal government will reimburse most grain farmers under a risk-management system Congress wrote and U.S. Department of Agriculture carried forward. At a news conference last week in the St. Paul Air National Guard Armory, Sen. Amy Klobuchar said during a tour of flood impacted areas, locals kept telling her they were "keeping [their] receipts," knowing help from Uncle Sam was on its way.

But at the very same news conference, Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen noted, "Some of the vegetable farms that are drowned out ... a lot of those folks don't have crop insurance."

That's because U.S. agriculture policy, historically, hasn't protected this category of growers the same as row-crop farmers who feed animals and power biofuels.

These farmers — call them specialty crops growers, produce or food farmers — raise the fresh fruits and vegetables Americans eat, from almonds to grapes. In Minnesota, these growers tend to strawberries, cucumbers and kohlrabi sold in church parking lots at farmers markets or food stands on the highway. They cultivate using hand tools and pick by hand at harvest, often on marginal lands. Many are immigrants, Black, Latino or Asian. Many are women.

And many don't have a safety net. According to the Minnesota Farmers' Market Association's (MFMA) review of federal data, of the 3,600-plus vegetable farmers, only eight of them had purchased so-called "micro farm" policies as of late June.

This week at Sharing Our Roots, a nonprofit, incubator farm on 163 acres of an old slough north of Northfield, growers are still coming to terms with a lost season. The farm's administration said some growers have lost up to $40,000 this summer.

"I can't get crop insurance for almost anything," said Delanie Harrmann of So Below Apothecary, who grows botanicals for tea blends. Harrmann is in only her third year of growing, and even federally subsidized "micro farm" policies require three years of farming for insurance eligibility. The water's effect on her farm this season: "Devastating."

The fight to increase access to insurance for specialty crop growers has been a long struggle in agriculture.

A 2023 report by a group of small-farmer advocates in Minnesota, including the MFMA, suggested changes to a USDA insurance program for smaller farmers, including improving incentives for growers and insurers. Other groups are eyeing the still-stalled farm bill before Congress to give smaller vegetable farmers a leg-up.

On Monday, the Biden administration approved a 22-county disaster declaration for the area flooding damaged this summer, unlocking federal dollars to pay back towns for cleaning up damage and sending aid to farmers for lost crops. The MDA encouraged farmers to report losses to the county USDA office. State-backed loans with zero interest are also available to farmers who lost revenue.

On Tuesday in Northfield, Moffat Odwere of Moffado Farm, stood in a field inspecting the tender green shoots, what remained of his cabbage. The Kenyan immigrant, farming on his own for the first time, lamented the loss of millet and managu, traditional African greens.

"They're not going to succeed," Odwere said, shaking his head. "It's a kind of panic."

According to the latest agricultural census, farmers of color make up a larger percentage of the state's vegetable farms than the overall percentage of minority farmers in the state. Many of those farmers are beginners or at least new to working land in the U.S. For them, the washed-away fields are a lifeline to next year.

At the packing shed, a neighbor, Samuel Nyarige, cleaned zucchinis he had picked that morning. He called the crop "terrible." The ground was soggy. Black mud caked to his boots. Still, he removed a hose and rinsed the crop. Any bounty helps now.

"We looked at the next seven days, and it's all rain," Lucia Possehl, the farm's commons cohort program manager, adding the farm launched a climate relief fund and issued $500 checks to everyone.

As the morning wore on, more farmers arrived in trucks. Some brought garden hoes, others bags of new seeds to plant with hopes for sunshine.

Staff photojournalist Elizabeth Flores provided Spanish translations for this report.