Richmond farmer saves Thanksgiving from summer floods
Bruce Hennessey has been working the fields around Maple Wind Farm in Richmond for 25 years.
And like most of the farmers in Vermont, Hennessey kept a close eye on the weather report during that second week in July.
As the storm approached, Hennessey had his staff move about 2,500 chickens that were living in one of the low-lying areas near the Winooski River.
But the turkey house, which was home to about 520 young birds, was up on a high knoll, and Hennessey assumed that they’d be safe.
“Given the forecast, we really felt like the highest point on this field was going to be fine,” Hennessey said. “We’ve had many, many, many flood events on this field where that hasn’t been a problem at all.”
Hennessey went to bed Monday night thinking his turkeys would be OK. The report out of the Waterbury Dam, 13 miles upstream, said the water would recede.
But when he woke up early Tuesday, the Winooski was rushing through his field — and through the turkey house.
Route 2 was closed from both directions, so a lot of his work crew wasn’t able to make it to the farm to help.
Hennessey tried to get his tractor out to the birds, but the water topped the engine and the tractor died.
And then one of his workers came up with an idea.
“Somebody said, ‘Hey, should we just bring a canoe down here and see what we can do.’ And I was like, 'It’s a better idea than just letting it go,'” he said.
It was a grim scene as the muddy water rose 4 to 5 feet and the waterlogged, young turkeys struggled to stay alive.
The farm crew borrowed a second canoe from a neighbor, and for most of that day they rowed across what was once a field, plucking the struggling birds that they thought had a chance from the chilly water into the canoes.
From the water's edge the wet, and mostly lifeless, turkeys were driven up to a heated building where they were nursed back to health.
In the end, they saved 120 turkeys.
But almost 400 didn’t make it.
“So that was a long and difficult day,” said Hennesey. “And, of course, 20/20 vision, hindsight, if I had just left the tractor at home and brought the canoes, we could have saved a lot more I think.”
The flooding in Vermont was a national story, and Hennessey heard from a farmer in Virginia who said he could let go of 200 young turkeys.
So Hennessey applied for a grant and drove down to Virginia to bring the young chicks back up to Vermont.
In the end, Maple Wind Farm was able to raise and sell about 320 turkeys.
"We still want to be that farm where people can get that special bird for Thanksgiving, and celebrate community, celebrate regenerative farming, and do it in a way that supports local agriculture.”Bruce Hennessey, co-owner Maple Wind Farm
Even though it's only about two-thirds the number of turkeys he usually raises, Hennessey says thinking of all of those Thanksgiving Day tables with a Maple Wind bird brings some sense of normalcy in a challenging year.
“Here’s the thing, if we only had a hundred birds — I mean, almost every year we sell over 500 turkeys — we’re gonna be leaving people out,” Hennessey said. “Was it part of our economic recovery? Absolutely, no question about it. But we still want to be that farm where people can get that special bird for Thanksgiving, and celebrate community, celebrate regenerative farming, and do it in a way that supports local agriculture.”
Hennessey says the support Maple Wind received after the flood helped so much in cleaning up and rebuilding.
The farm's monthly chicken dinners sold out through the summer, and a raffle helped raise almost $4,000.
“We’re a community-based farm. That’s who we are,” said Hennessey. “We don’t exist at all without our community. It’s just … all of those people that support us through buying our products are also involved in helping us when we get into dire straits, as we just did. And there’s no question, though, without the response of our community, and the way it comes and comes so quickly, we would have to close our doors.”
The Agency of Agriculture says that Vermont farmers suffered more than $16 million in damages from this summer's floods.
And more than one-third of the farmers who responded to a statewide survey said they lost livestock.
Hennessey says the community that supports his business — from his local customers to the state groups that provided grants and loans — helped the farm make it through this very tough year.
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