Farmers tally $12 million in damage so far, Vt. congressional delegation promises help
Water covered the tops of the corn stalks at Conant’s Riverside Farms in Richmond last month, when the field along the Winooski River flooded. About half of the corn crop and most of the hay crop died or suffered damage from the floods and the wet ground in the weeks since.
Now, many of the corn stalks have popped back up. Small ears of corn are still growing. But it’s uncertain whether the crop here will be safe to feed to the farm's cows when it comes time to harvest. Still, this farm was lucky.
“There are many farms that would feel fortunate to have this right here,” Dave Conant, who runs the farm with his family, said on a tour of the damaged fields Monday.
Many farmers in the region have faced significant crop losses, even those that weren’t directly hit by the floods. In a survey by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, over 200 farmers reported losses totaling over $12 million, likely a significant under count according to federal estimates, and over half anticipate a feed shortage in the months ahead.
"Across the board in agriculture in Vermont, we do need the help,” Conant said. “This is beyond our control."
“We’ve all been impacted in one way or another,” added Tim Kayhart, who runs a dairy farm in West Addison. “We haven’t cut hay in six weeks.”
Kayhart and other members of the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition, along with federal and state politicians, gathered at the Conants' farm on Monday, at an event organized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Cameron Clark, who runs a small organic dairy in Williston told state and federal officials that three-quarters of her pasture sat underwater during the floods, and she hasn’t been able to use the land since. Her cows have been in a barn.
"I don’t know how we’re going to be able to feed all the cows through the winter as well.”Cameron Clark, Riverhill Farms
“We’ve had to buy feed, which is really expensive,” Clark said. “We have only about half of our normal winter crop stored up. And so I don’t know how we’re going to be able to feed all the cows through the winter as well.”
The moisture has been a problem in other ways.
“Our heifers that are outside all summer long, we’re starting to see some hoof conditions,” said LeAnna Compagna, an organic dairy farmer at Scholten Family Farm in Whiting, where the path to their pasture was washed out. “When their feet are in moisture like that all the time, the tissues get soft and feet start to swell,” she said.
Members of Vermont's congressional delegation and representatives from the USDA told a crowd of farmers and reporters they’re doing everything they can to help.
“The challenges that we face are not only rebuilding and making sure Vermont agriculture remains strong today, we have got to do a lot of planning for the future,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders. “It ain't going to be easy and it’s not going to be inexpensive.”
Last week, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service announced $4 million in emergency funding to cover certain costs. “But there’s far more to come,” said USDA Under Secretary Robert Bonnie.
“We’re looking at legislation that will convert those loan programs into grant programs.”Sen. Bernie Sanders
Some low-interest loans are available to farmers, but Sanders acknowledged their limitations.
“Low interest loans may help but it’s not good enough,” he said. “So we’re looking at legislation that will convert those loan programs into grant programs.”
There are a number of cost-sharing programs and grants already in place, but they have their drawbacks too, and only about 20% of farmers have crop insurance, according to the recent Vermont Agency of Agriculture survey.
“The challenge with an event like this, it often overwhelms those programs,” Bonnie added. “So it’s important for Congress to think about, are there additional resources that we need.”
Lexi Krupp is a corps member with Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.