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'We know what we need to do.' Intervale farmers brace for future floods

A white man with a baseball hat stands in front of a tractor.
Mikaela Lefrak
Vermont Public
Patrick Dunseith, land manager at the Intervale Center, said the heavy rains in recent weeks "have been making everybody nervous."

Andy Jones is that guy at work who everyone goes to with questions, from which crops are ready to pick that week to where the extension cords are kept. He's been the land manager at the Intervale Community Farm, a 600-member CSA in Burlington, since 1993. Under the community supported agriculture model, consumers buy shares of the farm's harvest in advance.

In his 31 years at the Intervale, Jones has seen a lot of floods. But Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and the summer 2023 floods were outliers.

"It's awful and fascinating at the same time," he said.

One year ago this week, floodwaters subsumed the half dozen farms housed at the Intervale Center, alongside many, many other Vermont farms. The waterline is still visible on some of the Intervale Community Farm's buildings.

"It's a very sandy place," he said. "We're often desperate for more water. It's really hard to imagine that the whole thing" — he gestures out to the fields, currently teeming with vegetables — "is going to be a lake."

As the rains rolled in last July, hundreds of volunteers showed up to help them harvest. Any produce touched by floodwaters had to be thrown away. Then, through the rest of the summer, Jones and his coworkers scrambled to fill their members' CSA boxes with produce from their greenhouses and storage.

Andy Jones points out the waterline on one of the Intervale Community Farm's buildings.
Mikaela Lefrak
Vermont Public
Andy Jones points out the waterline on one of the Intervale Community Farm's buildings.

"It's a horrible feeling to feel like, 'Oh, we're not going to be able to deliver what we intended to our members,'" Jones said. "The social compact is that we're going to deliver this amazing spread of vegetables."

The one-year anniversary of the flooding has many Intervale employees thinking about that social compact and the importance of community, as well as the inevitable next flood.

 An aerial image of flooded farm fields and buildings
The University of Vermont
Flooding at Burlington's Intervale, home to many farms, on July 11, 2023.

"It's the time of year," said Patrick Dunseith, the Intervale Center's land manager.

During last year's flooding, Dunseith focused on moving their farm equipment to higher ground — mainly tractors and anything else with a motor. Moving the equipment to land that was just a foot higher made a big difference.

"A few inches make a big difference. It's the same with farm fields," he said. "Inches really matter."

He was able to save all their major equipment.

The Intervale Community Farm made a number of structural changes after Irene that helped carry them through the 2023 floods. They keep most long-term crops out of flood-prone areas and maximize the use of their greenhouses. More changes could be coming, but Dunseith said he still feels like he's living in a world of unknowns.

"We don't know what, ultimately, the frequency is of these large events," he said. "It's going to take a few more years."

Patrick Dunseith stands in front of the equipment he saved during the 2023 floods.
Mikaela Lefrak
Vermont Public
Patrick Dunseith stands in front of the equipment he saved during the 2023 floods.

Dunseith has also been reflecting on the broader concept of community supported agriculture.

"The CSA model is so powerful in helping consumers buy into the risk of farming," he said. "But ultimately, what we saw in response to last year was a lot of GoFundMes. And when you see farmers using GoFundMe to recover from a flood, we're not truly valuing those resources."

For now, the farmers at the Intervale are having a solid year, thanks in large part to their hard work and the community that surrounds them. After Tropical Storm Irene, some CSA members dropped out. But that didn’t happen after last summer’s floods. Most of their preexisting members stuck with them, and this year, they’re full up.

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

Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
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