The latest windstorm mangled greenhouses and toppled trees, another blow to Vermont farmers
At 5:30 in the morning in early January, Sarah Heffernan got a call from her dad. He was heading to work, and stopped to check on the farm buildings.
“He’s like, ‘The greenhouse is gone,’” she said. “All he could see was with his truck lights, so we didn’t really know the extent of the damage, but where the greenhouse once was, it was no longer there.”
Heffernan lives in Bristol, where she runs a flower farm on her family’s property. The night before, there was a big storm. Her neighbors reported wind gusts over 80 miles per hour. The farm lost power in the middle of the night.
“You couldn’t sleep anyway because the wind was so horrific,” Heffernan said. “We have four kids and they were all up. So, terrible night. I think I fell back asleep about 4 o'clock in the morning for a little while and I had this dream something was wrong with the greenhouse.”
The greenhouse was a big part of Heffernan’s business, Four Blooms Farm. There were actually two greenhouses, and they were big — about 100 feet long by 30 feet wide, with 2-and-half-foot pipes dug into the ground and fortified by wind braces. They gave her a large area to grow flowers year round. In the morning, all that was left of one was a mangled skeleton of pipes.
“It was probably one of the worst days of my life,” Heffernan said.
And the flower farm in Bristol was not the only place hard hit in the windstorm last month. In Holland, the roof blew off the town garage. Trees collapsed on homes in Cambridge, St. Albans, and Essex, and in many areas, the woods are a mess.
“It’s gonna be months just doing cleanup work,” said Ryan Lutton. He’s a sugarmaker who rents property in Bristol next to the Heffernans. He went through photos on his phone of what the sugarbush there looks like now.
“There was a perfectly healthy maple tree — no rot, defect in it at all — just snapped it right off just like a toothpick,” he said.
For Lutton, this windstorm feels like deja vu after a major storm last winter, in December 2022.
“I just couldn’t believe it, two years in a row,” he said. “But go right in and start cleaning up because the season’s gonna be here.”
And it’s not lost on him these storms are part of a pattern of extreme weather becoming more common.
“Once-in-a-hundred-year storms are now happening a little more regularly,” he said.
“Yeah, I think I’ve seen 50 of them now,” said Bill Heffernan, Sarah’s dad. He runs a sugarbush in Starksboro that was also badly damaged last month.
And this storm comes after the flooding in July put a spotlight on how extreme weather is impacting Vermont’s farming community. The state says farmers reported around $45 million in damage from the floods and subsequent rain — that’s between survey data and losses reported by farmers who applied for state assistance.
There have been efforts to help farmers in the aftermath — the agency of agriculture and private business owners just announced a big fundraising campaign for family farms impacted by extreme weather last year, with a goal of raising $20 million.
At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a program that can help sugar makers pay for storm damages, like damaged taps, lines, and compensation for the extra time it takes to restore a sugarbush. The program helped pay for damages from the storm in December of 2022, and could help sugar makers who were hit in the windstorm this year.
“We have had a number of applications already from maple producers,” said John Roberts, the head of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Vermont.
Federal lawmakers have also proposed creating a new insurance program to better serve small farms. That’s after some 70% of Vermont farmers who reported damages this summer said they have no crop or livestock insurance.
“In a normal year we usually see three to five applications come in for various disasters. Last year we had 215 farms apply for and receive funding from us.”Bill Cavanaugh, NOFA-VT
And the New England Organic Farmers Association of Vermont, or NOFA-VT, has a long running farmer emergency fund for growers impacted by any sort of disaster.
“In a normal year we usually see three to five applications come in for various disasters,” said Bill Cavanaugh, the farm business advisor there. “Last year we had 215 farms apply for and receive funding from us.”
These programs will not be enough to make people whole. And there’s this other weight farmers are dealing with after these sorts of natural disasters:
“Just a lot of trauma around what happened,” Cavanaugh said. “For a farmer, when something like this happens, it’s an impact not just on their land, but on their business, on the place they live, on their employees. And I think folks are really just processing that.”
Sarah Heffernan said she still hasn't processed what happened a few weeks ago. And she won’t be applying for any emergency aid. What has helped though is support from neighbors.
“I’ve had people, local and even not local, reaching out to me and asking, 'how can they help,'” she said. “They’ll pull plastic, they’ll help clean up the mess, they’ll help with anything. It’s given me a lot of support and encouragement to just keep going.”
She’s still figuring out what to do for the rest of the season. She wants to build some sort of structure to protect her flowers from grazing animals. And she’ll plant a row of shrubs to act as a windbreak later this year.
For now, it looks like most of the tulips she planted in the greenhouse survived. They should bloom this spring.
“As long as I can protect them from deer, rabbits, and severe weather,” she said.
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