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Johnson farmer details major flood damage: 'We were just absolutely shocked'

 A barn is pictured in disarray after extensive flooding.
Foote Brook Farm
Foote Brook Farm's barn and equipment storage areas were left in disarray after this week's historic flooding.

Many Vermont farms are nestled near river banks in valleys throughout the state. And as heavy rains soaked Vermont this week, many of those rivers crested and left their banks — devastating growers.

That includes Foote Brook Farm in Johnson. From asparagus to zucchini, roughly 140 types of vegetables are grown at the farm, which the same family has run for three generations. Owner Joie Lehouillier says they took every precaution they thought necessary before the flooding, but it wasn’t enough.

Lamoille County was among the hardest hit areas in the state after the Lamoille River rose to heights not seen in living memory.

Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch spoke to Lehouillier to see how things are going at Foote Brook Farm in the aftermath. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Williams Engisch: Joie, first off, how are you and your family doing?

Foote Brook Farm saw extensive flooding this week after the Lamoille River rose to historic levels.
Foote Brook Farm
Foote Brook Farm saw extensive flooding this week after the Lamoille River rose to historic levels.

Joie Lehouillier: We're kind of shell-shocked. We are getting by the best we can. We do have a clean, dry home, which is for some not something they have. So we are super grateful for that. But we are just taking one step at a time, and just trying to work on things to get the best outcome we can.

Can you walk us through what you experienced as you're seeing the heavy rains really starting to come down earlier in the week?

So on — I'm not sure even what day it is right now — but I believe on Monday night, we watched all the Lamoille River at Johnson gauges, and we moved a bunch of equipment. We sent our employees home to make sure that they were safe. We just kind of watched what was happening and tried to make the best decisions we could. We didn't go to bed until about midnight. And at that point, the river was definitely over the banks, but we felt like we would wake up in the morning and we would still have a bunch of our vegetables. We were worried about a couple of things; but we felt pretty confident we'd be okay.

We woke up at 4 a.m. and walked outside. And were just devastated. And we called our staff off. And we pretty much sat outside the house and just waited for it to crest and hope that it didn't hit our house. It came within probably five or six feet of our house. But the river is about three quarters of a mile away. So it just turned into a giant lake at our farm.

Oh my gosh. When the floodwaters did recede and it was safe for you guys to begin to assess the damage there, what did you observe?

We observed that the water was pretty much over every crop that was low lying. So in our our main field. We also noticed that it had gone into most of our greenhouses, and we have seven. We couldn't even get to our barn, our equipment shed or anywhere else. Any of the higher fields we couldn't get to.

Can you just tell us a little more? How did it feel to see the floodwater come through this week as you've prepared as best you can, and yet still it wasn't enough?

It was really shocking. Like absolutely shocking. And I'm trying to kind of keep my voice so I don't get too emotional, but it was just a rainstorm. Like they definitely said that in some places it was going to be catastrophic. But I never thought that it was going to be that here. And I don't think anybody did. You know, this was way worse than Irene. And we never thought we would see that again. My husband didn't even know — Tony did not even know what to do. He didn't know where to start. He didn't know how to feel. He didn't know. We were just absolutely shocked.

Equipment, packaging, and other items are strewn about a barn after floodwaters swept through.
Foote Brook farm
Farm owner Joie Lehouillier says this week's flooding resulted in more damage than Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

Yeah, that sounds so difficult. And we have heard from some other Lamoille County residents saying that they were reminded of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. Is that something that you experienced while you were at the farm?

Yes, that was bad, but we had a heads up. You know, "There's a hurricane coming. You need to prepare." So we dug ditches and we moved vehicles way further away than we did this time. And Irene didn't hit our equipment sheds and it did not flood our barn. But this did and that's really — the whole thing is devastating. But the most devastating part is that it there was six or seven feet of water in our barn, and that houses all of our packaging, our boxes, our bags, our washroom, our fertilizers, our ice machines, our pallet jacks — and without help we are not going to be able to recover.

And I understand that friends and neighbors and maybe even some customers came to help this week with cleanup. Can you describe the extent of that response? And then can you also share what sort of work has gone into the early cleanup so far at the farm?

Yes, within just a few hours once the water receded — I want to say it was probably Wednesday — we had at least three of our family members that are mechanics come, and they've been working literally 10 to 12 hour day getting all of the fluids and the water and everything out of all the tractors. If we didn't have them here, our season would be completely and utterly over. So we are so grateful for that.

" If you're going to have a disaster, Vermont is definitely the place to have it," said Joie Lehouillier of the volunteers who helped with the initial farm cleanup.
Foote Brook Farm
" If you're going to have a disaster, Vermont is definitely the place to have it," said Joie Lehouillier of the volunteers who helped with the initial farm cleanup.

What was it like to see the community turn out for Foote Brook Farm?

Oh, is been so heartwarming and amazing. We have probably about 15 people here today. And we had a bunch yesterday, and it's everybody. From friends of ours to — my son plays basketball, and it's his teammates and their families. And it's been strangers. It's been folks that visit the farm stand on a regular basis. It's been incredible. If you're going to have a disaster, Vermont is definitely the place to have it.

Well, what kind of support do farmers need right now — from neighbors, or from the state, or the federal government — in order to pick up pieces and move on from this from this flooding?

Thank you for asking that. Farmers are super resilient people. And we will try to move forward any way we can. But we need immediate funds to keep our staff here. Right now, that's at the forefront of my mind. You know, we have anywhere from 14 to 20 employees a year. We are in the H-2A program, so we have four gentlemen from Jamaica that come every year — and they are a part of our family. And the thought of having to send them home to families that need them to make money here to send home breaks my heart.

And it's also for families that live right here and have mortgages and children and I just — I want to keep them. I want to keep them going. So for me right now that's the immediate need. So we just need funding. I know down the road, there will probably be some low-interest loans, but farmers cannot take on hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt or they'll never be able to — like we couldn't do that because then we would never be able to get out of debt or be able to retire someday. So yeah, we just need some immediate funding so that we can move forward.

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Flooding recovery assistance and other key resources

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