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How flood damage to Vermont's farms is changing food assistance programs

People lift tarps in a washed out pepper field with bushy green trees and a blue sky in the background.
Julia Tanier
Vermont Public
Volunteers help Pitchfork Farm co-owner Rob Rock (front right) lift crop tarps from his flooded pepper field.

Many of Vermont’s low-lying farms were inundated with floodwaters in July, losing most if not all of their crops during the peak of their growing season. These farms stock not only grocery store shelves and farmers markets, but also community fridges, pantries and food banks across the Green Mountain state.

The Winooski River broke its bank this July for the first time since Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, and devastated the farms at the Intervale in Burlington. These farms are some of the largest producers in Chittenden County.

More from Vermont Public: Vermont farmers weather crop losses, 'devastation,' from severe flooding

Just over a week after the flooding, one of them — Pitchfork Farm — hosted its first volunteer cleanup group. About a dozen volunteers helped pick up tarp and trellises while dodging deep puddles of smelly water.

Cleanup is the first of many steps Pitchfork and other farms at the Intervale will have to take before they can produce any crops again.

Dead pepper plants sit in a puddle in a corner of a field. Grass and trees flourish in the background with a blue sky.
Julia Tanier
Vermont Public
A corner of Pitchfork's pepper field remains underwater.

“How can we make sure everyone’s fed? And how do we support farmers in conjunction with that?” said Hannah Baxter as she helped with the cleanup.

Baxter is the Food Access Manager at the Intervale, which means she helps food banks and other food assistance programs distribute extra crops from the Intervale.

“All these farmers make my programming possible and allow us to feed, like, upwards of 1,000 people every week, just because there’s so much surplus,” Baxter said.

Because of the flooding, that surplus isn’t happening this summer.

Pitchfork Farm estimates they lost around $400,000 due to the flood, yet all the farmers are smiling and laughing as they muck around the field.

Fundraisers have popped up all over to help support farmers affected by the floods to get back on their feet. But, it’s going to be a while longer before Vermont’s food assistance programs will be able to rely on local farms to stock their shelves.

Some food pantries are also in the early stages of flood recovery. Until recently, the Montpelier Food Pantry operated out of a basement on Main Street. When the city flooded, the entire pantry filled with water, up to the ceiling. Everything was lost: the food, refrigerators, freezers — $80,000 worth of stuff in total.

In their new temporary location, the Montpelier Food Pantry has no cold storage. This means they haven’t been able to purchase any eggs or milk from nearby farms. Luckily, they have been receiving lots of donations.

People lift rows of tarp in a muddy field. Trees and blue skies in the background.
Julia Tanier
Vermont Public
In just a few hours, volunteers were able to help with preliminary cleanup that farmers thought would take a whole week.

“We are able to meet the need thus far,” said Jaime Bedard, director of the pantry. “But it does require pretty much banging down the doors of everyone in the community.”

Bedard said the pantry is going to continue to need donations of food and money throughout the summer at least.

The question of long-term effects is a big one. No one knows what the state of Vermont’s food supply chains are going to look like.

“In the sort of medium term you see some of those other kinds of longer-felt impacts, some places reopen, other places don’t,” said Caitlin Morgan, a food systems researcher at the University of Vermont. “It just changes the whole landscape of where and how people can access food.”

Morgan said shorter supply chains can sometimes mean places are more prepared for natural disasters like these, and other times — like this one — they might not be prepared.

“This could be an example of that, where you have— if you’re really committed to having it be local, and then you have an unexpected and catastrophic event, some of those priorities might have to change in the short term to get the same kind of products,” Morgan said.

a pepper hangs off the stem of it's plant. Dead brown leaves sit on a washed out tarp surrounded by mud.
Julia Tanier
Vermont Public
A lone pepper clings to it's stem in Pitchfork's flooded field.

With many Vermont farms out of service, food access programs like the Vermont Foodbank might have to start buying food elsewhere.

Andrea Solazzo is the director of community engagement at the Vermont Foodbank.

“People aren’t going to be experiencing hunger because there's a lack of food from the food bank locally,” Solazzo said. “They’re just not going to get tomatoes, they’re going to get potatoes from Quebec.”

The farms at the Intervale are the Vermont Foodbank’s biggest suppliers in Chittenden County.

“If there continues to be flooding and extreme weather events, we’ll definitely be impacted. We’ll definitely as an organization just be buying more food from places that aren’t on floodplains,” Solazzo said.

Back at Pitchfork Farm, there was a mad rush just before the flood to harvest as much as they could. 10,000 pounds of cabbage were picked and sold to partners.

While clearing out his field, Rob Rock, co-owner of the farm, joked with volunteers that local Burlington restaurant Grey Jay had bought so much of that cabbage that they had created a new dish for it.

“Cabbage mimosa, really? Cabbage mimosas! You could put cabbage in a Bloody Mary!” Rock said.

Pitchfork and many of the farms in the Intervale plan to replant when it’s safe.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Julia Tanier was a News Intern during summer 2023.
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