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Farmers Says Resiliency Is Part Of The Job

Tropical Storm Irene’s impact on Vermont’s farms was seen in silt covered fields of corn and water-damaged farm equipment.

In the end, the storm damaged roughly 20,000 acres of farmland and killed a small number of animals. The unseen impacts were just as severe. State officials estimate agricultural losses of more than $10 million.

Two years later, some farmers are still working to recover financially and to restore productivity to their land.

When the White River jumped its banks at Liberty Hill Farm in Rochester, the damage was captured by Google Earth images in the months after the storm.

The once green fields were brown with silt. Beth Kennett, who owns the farm with her husband and sons said the fields were also covered with debris that had floated downstream from town.

“It’s hard to say debris when it’s other people’s homes and the contents of their home, it was very difficult for all of us and all the volunteers that came for days and weeks to clean the fields and we’re still finding objects that belong to other people. Even this summer my son is still finding other people’s objects in our fields,” Kennett said.

The loss of corn and hay just before harvest time was devastating.

“We lost over 85 percent of our feed for the entire year, both what we had harvested and what had yet to be harvested from the fields, so that was a huge expense for us and we needed to downsize our herd because we weren’t able to buy enough feed for all of our animals,” Kennett said.

It took the Kennetts two years to get back up to 115 cows -- the number they had pre-Irene. They’ve worked to plow in the new deposit of silt and regain the field’s productivity. Early on, there were concerns about contamination on the fields but none was ever found in testing.

The Kennetts took out loans to pay for the feed and the machinery and work needed to restore the fields. Those financial impacts linger. But Kennett believes in the end, farmers are used to facing challenges.

“You have to adapt constantly and that resilience is necessary to survive in farming. With farmers the expectation is that life has challenges, you know that from the get go, you deal with life or death all the time,” she reflected.

The Kennetts are thankful for the grants they received from various sources, including a fundraiser organized by former guests at their bed and breakfast. They also were among the 230 farms that received funding from the Vermont Farm Disaster Relief fund. The fund raised and distributed over $2 million.

Down the river in South Royalton at Hurricane Flats Farm, Geo Honingford also benefited from the fund, along with grant money from a few other sources. He said it was hard initially to accept money and volunteer help. 

“It was hard to accept help, when people wanted to come do a clean up day, I said no, but it would have taken me three months to do what people did in a day,” Honingford said.

Water flowed over 35 of Honingford’s 37 acres organic vegetable farm, ruining the last of the growing season. The vegetables that remained, including some in a green house had to be destroyed. And then Honingford had to deal with the silt deposits the river left behind.

“I decided that episodes like that created my land, floods are what brought in our soil, with that new deposit, I averaged a couple inches to two to three feet and I decided that’s going to be my new soil,” Honingford said.

He’s been working to incorporate the new material into the soil rather than having it taken away. It was both a financial and environmental decision. It’s been less expensive to add more organic matter to the minerals than it would have been to scrape off the silt.

A bigger challenge was what to do about two large holes left in the river bank. Honingford worked with the White River Partnership on a unique plan to use trees from the river to restore the bank and slow down the river rather than using rip wrap, which can speed up flood waters. The trees have been cabled together and held in place with coconut fabric.  School groups came and planted trees to help shore up the bank even more.

Honingford estimates it will take five years to fully recover from Irene, but it is happening.

“It’s a kick in the teeth, but as long as it happens just once in my lifetime I can bounce back, but if this keeps happening more than once it takes a lot of energy and mental anguish and money to recover.”

State agriculture officials say farmers deal with a lot of risk around the environment and weather every day. And while Irene was a challenge, officials say no farms went out of business as a direct result of the flooding. They’re also pleased with how much support farmers received in the form of relief funds and volunteer help in the days after the storm. 

Dairy Farmers Trying To Return To Normal Operation

Vegetable Growers Try To Recover From Irene Floods

Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.
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