On July 19, 2023

‘It’s farming in Vermont’

 

Farmers discouraged by flood, but resilient, as recovery work begins

By Katy Savage

Rebecca Ruplin woke up at 2 a.m. Monday, July 10 to the sound of pounding rain outside her window. 

“There was basically a waterfall coming down our driveway,” she said.

She and her boyfriend used a backhoe and tractor in the middle of the night to dig up the road and create a barrier around her house, barn and vegetable fields.

“We basically destroyed our driveway so the house wouldn’t wash away,” she said.

Ruplin, who owns Fiddler’s Green Farm in Plymouth, saved her house, but she lost close to 200 garlic plants and is expecting more damage to her farm as rain continues.

She, like many farmers, has been impacted by excessive rainfall, with some areas receiving as much as nine inches of rain since July 8. More than 80 roads and state highways closed due to rain water, in some cases impeding farmers from delivering milk and produce. 

“Everybody is kind of in the same boat,” Ruplin said. 

Ruplin’s biggest concern is that area restaurants she sells produce to, including Goodman’s American Pie and Mojo Cafe in Ludlow, have closed due to flooding. 

“They aren’t going to be open any time soon,” she said. “I’m not sure what they’re going to do with all this produce.” 

She estimated she’ll see $5,000 to $10,000 in loss. With local farmers markets closed and her road blocked, she’s unsure how she’ll sell any produce she can save. 

“There is nowhere to bring the produce to,” she said.

So far, over 40 farms, including five in Windsor County and three in Rutland County, have reached out to the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, reporting they’ve been adversely affected by the flooding, according to Lindsey Brand, the organization’s marketing and communications coordinator. 

Some farmers have lost market channels due to impassable roads and closed restaurants, stores and farmers markets. Some have contaminated pastures and hayfields that are no longer suitable for feeding livestock. Hundreds of acres of local crops have been lost. 

“A lot of farmers are probably pretty discouraged right now,” Anson Tebbetts, secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, said at a press conference on July 14. 

“We expect the excessive flooding will destroy a large share of our produce and livestock feed. In our hilly state, some of our most fertile farmland lies in the river valleys and countless fields of corn, hay, vegetables, fruit, and pasture were swamped and buried,”he said.

Tebbetts said there will be a ripple effect on food security.

“Widespread flooding we suffered throughout Vermont this week has been among the worst of the last century, and it arrived in the heart of our growing season,” he said. 

The flood came after a May frost, deemed the worst in 25 years, caused about $10 million in damages in the state, according to Tebbetts. Apple, peach and strawberry blossoms that came out too early were destroyed. 

In this flood, farm equipment and debris were seen floating in flood water.

Round haybales from a farm in Woodstock were found tumbling over waterfalls and under the covered bridges in Taftsville and Quechee. 

Jeff Grembowicz, who owns Grembowicz Farm in North Clarendon, lost up to 600 acres of corn in his fields, which extend along the Otter Creek between Clarendon and Proctor. 

He estimated the water was 12 feet deep in his fields, well over his 6-foot-tall corn, which he sells to local dairy farms.  “It’s nothing but muddy water,” he said.

BJ Hathaway lost about 10 acres of corn fields along the Otter Creek in Proctor. “The water is the highest I’ve ever seen it in the 10 years I’ve farmed it,” he said. “It rivals what we saw in Tropical Storm Irene.”

Hathaway said water sat on his corn for at least a week before receding. Access to the fields was still too flooded a week later to assess the damage.

“Honestly, I don’t really want to know,” he said. “It will probably be covered in miscellaneous flood debris. We’re too far into the growing season to be able to replant or regrow anything at this point.”

Hathaway is also expecting damage to his hay fields, which sit along the river.  “Any hay that comes off that will probably be for mulch,” he said. “If you want to look at the silver lining, there’s plenty of projects around the state that are going to need mulch to cover up all the damage from the storm.” 

But more rain in the forecast concerned Hathaway. 

“This weather pattern has got to let up just a little bit so we can try to accomplish something,” he said. “It’s kind of two steps forward one step back all the time. We can’t manage to string together three days of sunshine to save our lives. It’s farming in Vermont.” 

Boris Pilsmaker of Hinterland Farm in Killington said he didn’t have any damage to his produce, but the lack of tourists buying his products due to flooding forced him to throw vegetables away.

“I’m going to lose two weeks of selling,” he said. 

For many farmers, it’s too soon to know the full extent of the damage. 

“The excess wetness can be really ripe for disease spread,” said Heidi Lynch, the executive director of the Vermont Farmer’s Food Center. 

Lynch was most concerned about food security.

“The food is gone,” she said. “Is there going to be a demand from areas that didn’t get hit as hard?”

As state leaders continue assessing the flood damage, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Peter Welch and Rep. Becca Balint sent a letter to United States Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on July 15 asking him to provide support to the state and to approve Gov. Phil Scott’s request for a Secretarial Disaster Designation.

 “We are heartened that on July 14, President Biden approved a major disaster declaration for all counties in Vermont, with an additional authorization of individual assistance for six counties,” they wrote in the letter. “However, Vermont will need additional, ongoing support from USDA.”

The state is offering resources, including free soil testing for flood-impacted farms. Visit uvm.edu/extension for more information.

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