Vermont farmers say they need more gov't help as climate change causes more extreme weather
Throughout the summer, Vermont farmers have dealt firsthand with this season of unpredictable weather, facing crop loss, destroyed equipment and increasing debt. As extreme weather events become more common with the growing threat of climate change, some say state and federal support needs to change to assist Vermont’s agricultural producers in the future.
The town of Johnson faced the wrath of the raging Lamoille River in early July as floodwaters swept through the state. Houses, stores and fields became destroyed by the floods, including Foote Brook Farm, an organic vegetable farm on Route 15.
Joie Lehouillier is the owner of Foote Brook Farm, along with her husband, Tony. They’ve owned the farm for 25 years and grow 145 different varieties of vegetables.
The day the floodwaters crested the Lamoille, Lehouillier said she woke up around 4:30 a.m.
“I didn't hear any traffic. So that made me a little nervous,” she said. “When we came outside, I didn't even believe what I was seeing. We looked out our front door and it just looked like glass, like a lake. It was calm water and we were just shocked and overwhelmed.”
The water devastated their low-lying fields, their equipment shed and their barn. Lehouillier estimates they lost 80-85% of their crop. And she says these losses are worse than what they faced in Tropical Storm Irene.
“You know, we’ve had vegetable losses before, and we can sort of get through those. But the equipment shed and the barn, it’s a major problem to lose that much infrastructure,” said Lehouillier.
She said the farm has benefited from a GoFundMe the community started and many grants she’s applied for that pay for everyday expenses. But they won’t be enough to help them through this storm.
“We're taking any help that we can possibly get and it has been extremely helpful,” she said. “But it is not going to get us back where we were.”
In Vermont alone, over 200 farms and 17,000 acres of farmland were affected by the floods, totaling over $12 million. And, over 70 fruit producers are still working to recover from a devastating frost that hit the state in late May.
In the early morning hours of May 18, temperatures dropped around Vermont, as low as 19 degrees in some areas. Fruit trees, like apples, can only handle temperatures down to 28 degrees before they are damaged, and with warm temperatures in the beginning of May, trees had already started to bud.
It’s a phenomenon known as a “backwards spring,” said State Climatologist Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux. It’s when temperatures warm earlier, signaling plants to start blooming, but when temperatures fall, the fragile buds are damaged and ultimately die. Plants like apples and stone fruit are highly susceptible to this type of damage.
Selling to the grocery store, the fruit's got to be absolutely perfect. So we're thinking we have nothing to harvest for that market this year.Casey Darrows, owner of Green Mountain Orchards
In Putney, Casey Darrow, the owner of Green Mountain Orchards, says he lost 85% of his apples this year. He says even the morning after the freeze, he knew his crop was in trouble.
“Within about an hour or so, right in front of your eyes, you could see them change from white to this sort of brown, dead looking color,” Darrow said. “And so we knew there was pretty significant damage just by that alone.”
Fruit that comes from buds that do survive are often misshapen. And for orchards, their profit can depend on who they sell to. For Darrow, who mostly sells to commercial buyers, it’s unlikely the buyers will purchase his misshapen fruit.
“Selling to the grocery store, the fruit's got to be absolutely perfect. So we're thinking we have nothing to harvest for that market this year,” he said.
But Darrow hopes his customers will still purchase apples come fall through pick-your-own operations, even if they don’t look quite ‘normal.’
“We've been impressed in the past when we've had a hailstorm that's damaged fruit, looking into people's bags being like, ‘Wow I can't believe they picked that and are willing to pay full price,’ but nobody even said anything. We were worried about it and no one seemed to mind at all,” Darrow said.
As Vermont farmers try to recover from the season, governmental help will be crucial. On July 21, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack approved Gov. Phil Scott’s request for a disaster designation for those affected by the freeze. On Aug. 7, Scott’s disaster designation was approved for farmers with flood damages.
These designations make a number of programs from the USDA available to Vermont farmers, like silt or debris cleanup. Though, some of this assistance is in the form of low-interest loans, which worries Darrow.
“We already have debt,” he said. “We don’t need more debt.”
Lehouillier echoed these concerns. She said, like many farmers, she borrows money at the beginning of every season and uses profits from that year’s crop to pay it back.
“Now I don't have those vegetables to pay back that line of credit. So I cannot even consider taking out another loan until I can figure out a way to pay off those ones that I already incurred to just get the season going,” she said.
Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts hopes to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Vermont’s congressional delegation to find other ways to support farmers, like direct payments.
“Hopefully we can get together and find a vehicle to maybe get a program together,” Tebbetts said. “But it's going to take an act of Congress to get direct payments.”
Now I don't have those vegetables to pay back that line of credit. So I cannot even consider taking out another loan until I can figure out a way to pay off those ones that I already incurred to just get the season going.Joie Lehouillier, co-owner of Foote Brook Farm
Mike Mrowicki, a representative from Putney, said the state could put together funding for growers as well, to help them avoid taking on more debt.
“For some of these people, from what we heard from growers, this kind of assistance could mean the difference between them staying in business and getting to next year and not,” he said.
Plus, this isn’t just a Vermont issue. Farmers in New York and Massachusetts felt similar effects from the late freeze and summer flooding. In Georgia, peach production has dropped 90% due to cold temperatures in the beginning of the year.
Dupigny-Giroux, the state climatologist, said global warming is accelerating these natural disasters and we must focus on mitigating the effects of climate change.
“So the idea of stopping climate change is probably a question we need to sort of reframe a little bit, because it's, 'How do we mitigate against and try to do no more harm' too, at the same time?” she said.
The World Meteorological Organization confirmed that this July was the hottest month ever recorded, at 0.72 degrees Celsius warmer than the average July temperature for the past 30 years.
Some, like Lehouillier from Foote Brook, feel the federal government should be the ones to step up and help.
“I think there definitely needs to be more attention brought to what we do for our communities and how important we are and we think the federal government, especially, should invest in making us more valuable,” she said.
John Roberts, the state executive director to the Farm Service Agency, said to create more assistance for farmers, D.C. will need to be involved.
“That's one for Congress in a way. I mean, all across the country, farmers have access to the same programs that we have for our Vermont farmers. Anything beyond that is a congressional thing,” Roberts said.
And while governmental assistance is necessary as these events become more common, so is changing farming practices. At Sweetland Farm in Norwich, owner Norah Lake is already taking some steps.
Lake produces vegetables and a variety of fruit. She lost about 90% of her apples and all her plums. But she hopes her pledge to reduce 90% of her farm’s carbon emissions by 2028 will inspire other farmers to do the same.
Sweetland has solar power on their roofs, is in the process of transitioning all their equipment to electric and is switching to using biofuel. Lake said events like the freeze remind her why she made the pledge.
“An event like this just makes us that much more conscious of how critical that is, and hopeful that we can kind of end up being a model for other farms and other businesses to do a similar change to their systems,” she said.
Lake not only calls on farmers to make these sustainable changes, but also on the customer. She hopes people will support climate-friendly farming more in the future.
“The decision to buy food, which is healthy for yourself, is very important. But I think it's so important to also prioritize buying food that's healthy for the climate, which ultimately is also healthy for ourselves,” Lake said.
And as summer winds down and fall approaches, Vermont farmers are still navigating where they go from here.
Daniel and Leila Bair own Peck Farm Orchards in East Montpelier and also lost a large amount of their apple crop in the freeze. They are trying to stay optimistic about the months ahead.
“It's agriculture. We've had hail come through and damage, you know, 50% of our fruit. We've had disease come in from nurseries and take out hundreds of trees. We've had mice take out hundreds of trees,” Daniel said. “It's ag. It's a struggle. It's hard to do. But I think, in the end, it is pretty rewarding.”
Farmers are encouraged to stay in touch with their local USDA branch and report their damages to the Farm Service Agency.
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