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How Vermont farmers are recovering from last year's record-wet summer

A field of sunflowers
Lexi Krupp
Vermont Public
While some farmers have had to stop using parts of their land after last summer's flooding, the overwhelming majority have continued farming.

Every farm in the state was impacted by the abnormal weather last summer, from the devastating flooding in July — in the middle of the growing season — to the constant rain that lasted for months. It was the wettest summer in Vermont on record since 1895, with nearly 10 inches more of rainfall than usual.

“[There were] some farms receiving 60 inches of precipitation,” said Heather Darby, a soil scientist at University of Vermont Extension and farmer in the Champlain Islands.

And the damage has been hard to recover from — about 70% of farmers in Vermont who reported damages last summer do not have crop insurance, and those that do often are not reimbursed for all their losses.

One reason is because hay, one of the most abundant crops in the state, is considered low value. “It’s not insured or insurable in many cases,” Darby sad. “So there are large acreages of land, for livestock owners in particular, that go uninsured.”

More from Vermont Public: Vermont is piloting a new program to help farmers rely on one another during stressful times

Instead, farmers had to rely on grants from the state, nonprofits and donations from neighbors in the immediate aftermath, and federal money for repairs later on.

“For a little bit of context, after Irene, we gave out a little over $200,000 in emergency grants — that’s quick cash to help make it through,” said Grace Oedel, the executive director of NOFA-VT, a non-profit focused on supporting organic farms that has a designated emergency fund for farmers.

“We ended up giving about $1.7 million out through the fund,” Oedel said. “There was really no meaningful program that was otherwise providing support.”

At River Berry Farm in Fairfax, nearly 8 feet of water flooded their fields, destroying about half their crops. But the economic impact was mostly short term because of state, federal and community assistance.

And where the flooding eroded riverbanks, they planted small trees.

“Hopefully [the storms] this week won’t do it again so they can get through a year or two and then hopefully hold so we won’t lose the soil like we did,” said farm co-owner David Marchant.

A flooded farm field in Vermont
Bruce Hennessey
The field where Maple Wind Farm raised its turkeys was covered with close to 8 feet of water during the flood last summer.

For Bruce Hennessey, who runs Maple Wind Farm in Richmond, the damage was more than financial. He lost nearly 400 turkeys last year, after floodwaters rose 8 feet higher than forecasted.

“Turkeys can and do swim, but they don’t handle the temperature of the water well at all. It was really hypothermia that was knocking them out, then they wouldn’t be able to stay afloat,” Hennessey said.

He and his staff were able to rescue about 120 birds by boat. “We did get all the birds that were still kicking out there into the canoes before we were done,” he said.

Some farmers have had to stop using parts of their land, but the overwhelming majority have continued farming. “We’ve only heard from a couple who decided not to continue after the floods,” said Oedel, of NOFA-VT.

This growing season has not been easy for many of them, between spells of extreme heat that's damaged crops and wet weather that’s disrupted planting and mowing hay.

“We’re seeing a lot of fluctuations — a lot of erratic weather, heavy rain storms, wet soils — so it has continued to be stressful,” said Darby.

Broadcast live on Tuesday, July 9, 2024, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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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.
Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.
Lexi covers science and health stories for Vermont Public.