Friday, September 2, 2011

hurricane, part two: agriculture

Reprinted with permission from the Valley News.

South Royalton -- In West Woodstock, a pile of 200 dead chickens await disposal outside Thymeless Herbs Farm, decomposing in the heat while the owners struggle to find homes for those that survived. In South Royalton, an 81-year-old man stands on his stalled tractor as the waters rise around him and sweep his cows down the White River. Just down the road, a farmer ignores his own inundated fields to help save his neighbors' homes.
“We're done for right now,” said Suzy Krawczyk, owner of poultry farm Thymeless Herbs, and a mother of five. “We lost a lot of birds. That was a major part of our income.”
Across the Upper Valley, farms and farmers were hit hard by Tropical Storm Irene -- or hardly hit at all.
Koi Boynton, development coordinator for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, said the state hasn't yet estimated the financial cost the flood will have upon Vermont's agricultural economy.
“It's tough to say right now,” she said. “Everyone's still in emergency mode, responding to basic needs at this point. We're waiting for the dust to settle, then going out to make sure everyone’s okay before assessing the real damage.”
Irene did not treat all farms equally. “Some farms have had no flooding,” said Vern Grubinger, a vegetable specialist with the University of Vermont extension. “On the other end of the spectrum, there are farms that have been completely wiped out. That's what's so unusual about this.”
Typically, Grubinger said, flooding is a localized event that affects agriculture in the vicinity of a single watershed. This time, the damage is statewide, though scattered.
Geo Honigford, owner of Hurricane Flats Farm in South Royalton, is one of those farmers who had his farm “wiped out.” Sixty five acres of corn and cabbage, carrots and kale, tomatoes, potatoes, “everything you'd find in a supermarket,” Honigford said: gone.
Plants are bent, swept to the earth in the remnants of Honigford's murky, silt-covered fields -- but they still look edible. The air is ripe with the scent of tomatos on the vine, and tiny green heads of lettuce poke through the mud. But none of it will get eaten. The FDA considers any crop that has come into contact with flood waters to be “adulterated and not to be sold for human consumption.”
“We have sweet corn that's absolutely gorgeous,” Honigford said. “You take a bite and it's delicious. But we’re not supposed to be selling it.
“I have stuff that I picked before this happened,” he added. “Potatoes, onions, shallots. But this is a total devastation of the growing season. It's a kick in the teeth.”
Honigford, who didn't have flood insurance and estimates the financial impact of the flood to be around $45,000, ignored his own obliterated crops to organize a community-wide clean up of his neighbors' homes this week. His own home was undamaged, and he said there was nothing to be done on his farm that couldn't wait.
Asked what he would do with the thick layer of silt that now coats his fields, Honigford had a simple answer: "Farm it. The river giveth and the river taketh away."
For five of his neighbors, though, the clock was ticking. He was trying to help alleviate mold damage before it rendered their homes permanently inhabitable.
After putting in several 12-hour days to save his neighbors' homes, Honigford said he barely has time to think about his own loss.
“It hasn't sunk in yet,” he said. His wife works off the farm, but the couple has two teenagers to support and depend on the income from Honigford's crops. “I don't sleep much,” he said. “I dream about onions floating down the river at night.”

“There are losses expected in farming and horticulture,” Grubinger acknowledged. “A modest loss is not atypical. Hot weather during strawberry season can ruin a crop.”
Floods, too, are to be expected. Floodplains are often the most fertile cropland; an occasional deposit of river silt makes for rich soil, and many farmers seek out floodplains despite the risk. Today, though, a major flood leaves behind contaminates from overflowing storm drains, industrial runoff and sewage.
“The extent of contamination is going to vary so much from place to place, depending on what's upstream,” Grubinger said.
However, contaminates left by receding floodwaters in Vermont are largely carbon based, he added, alleviating long-term effects. “They break down over time. I would be a lot more concerned if we were a highly industrial state with chemicals and heavy metals, things that don't break down so readily. Fortunately, we're a very rural state, so yes, there will be some manure and sewage but those things do decompose.”
After a few months, Grubinger said, toxins will be filtered through the soil and crops can be planted again. Contaminates from the flood should not affect organic farmers' certification.
However, farmers do have to worry about the effect of water: “Fungi can grow on corn and can form microtoxins, not from the flood itself but because the corn got wet,” he added.
Wet or silt-covered corn poses a problem for farmers with livestock. David Ainsworth, a fifth generation farmer at Westlands Farm in South Royalton, lost about 10 of his 40 acres of corn meant to feed his dairy cows over the winter. Another 25 acres is now coated with a layer of silt.
“I heard from a friend that used to farm up at the junction of Route 100 that he had a field get flooded,” Ainsworth said. “He went ahead and chopped it, and it broke his chopper. That makes me a little hesitant.”
Ainsworth is hoping for a “gentle rain” to wash some of the silt off. He thinks that if he can chop the corn, he might be able to salvage it if he can vaccinate his cows. A friend might have a few extra acres of cow corn he can buy, too. But no matter what, the flood is going to set him back.
“There's more expense involved, but I have no idea how much right now,” he said, noting that he'll also lose a “few thousand” dollars in sales from his farm stand, because his road is currently closed to traffic.
“We'll keep going,” he added. “We'll come up with some money from wherever we can to get things back up, and we'll try to help our neighbors too.”

As the state -- and its farmers -- begin the long process of recovery, Boynton, the agriculture development coordinator, said one of her office's biggest concerns continues to be the plight of dairy farmers, some stranded with no electricity and with access roads washed out.
Duke Perley, 81, is one of those. He's been milking cows on his family's land at Perley Farms in South Royalton for 40 years. Last weekend, Perley was in New Jersey to attend his Aunt Betty's funeral when he heard about the storm racing up the East Coast.
“I told my nieces, let's get out of this storm. Let's go to Vermont where we’ll be safe. Next thing I knew I was standing on the steps watching the water rise.”
From a stalled tractor, Perley watched his cows float away in the raging White River. He had recently suffered a heart attack and had a pacemaker installed, and was so upset by what he witnessed that he became anxious he was having another one. A boat came to rescue him.
In the end, though, after driving his nieces back to New Jersey, Perley was planning to return to Vermont and help the family farm recover.
“I lost a lot of money and a lot of time, but we'll be all right,” Perley said by phone from New Jersey.
Perley's daughter, Penny Severance, said she “wouldn't bat an eye” at putting their losses at more than a half a million dollars. Their house was ruined, farm equipment lost and 25 cattle dead or missing. The family was unable to milk their remaining 35 cows for days, and when they finally received a generator on Tuesday evening, the 620 gallons (5,400 pounds) of milk they gained had to be dumped down the drain. There was no refrigerator and no way to get the milk off the farm.
But as Grubinger, the UVM vegetable specialist, put it, “I think the future for agriculture is bright. This is a bump in the road right now, but we're going to have strong dairy farms. We're going to have strong horticulture. This is a short-term impact and agriculture is going to rebound as it often does.”
“I worked 27 years on the busses,” Perley said, referring to his earlier career. “I got up on the farm when my uncle got too old, and I said, ‘I ain't never leaving.' I dealt with that river for 40 years and this was something that I never expected, but I’m 81 and I’m still going to farm.”

Yesterday afternoon, Ainsworth took a break from the clean-up effort to erect signs for the Royalton Farmers Market. The market, he said, will continue as planned. Many farmers were hardly affected by the storm.
At Cedar Circle Farm on the Connecticut River in Thetford, Education Coordinator Cat Buxton said her farm didn't suffer any losses.
“This past spring was the highest we've ever seen the river,” Buxton recalled. After Irene, though: “No bad news to report.” The farm stand at Cedar Circle was running a brisk business on Wednesday morning. Nancy Franklin, at Riverview Farm in Plainfield, said her apple orchards escaped unscathed as well.
At Crossroads Farm in Post Mills, Tim Taylor and his crops also survived. “But our customers didn't,” he added, alluding to the ruined Woodstock Farmers' Market, a major buyer of his produce. “That in itself presents some interesting problems,” Taylor said. “You expect to be able to sell to someone and suddenly, you can't. You have to find other markets.”
Hanover's Co-op Food Stores buys produce from 13 local growers, but spokesman Allan Reetz said maintaining a steady supply of vegetables there hasn't been much of an issue.
“One farmer might've lost two or three important crops,” Reetz said. “Cooking greens, like kale and chard for example. But where one grower lost some of those crops, another grower was also growing a comparable crop and is quickly saying, ‘I can fill this need. I can shift over and we can keep getting this food to market.'
“It's heartening,” he added. “It's a local food system that's not dependent on the demands outside our region.”
Some farmers have also pledged to donate surplus produce to help feed volunteers contributing to the relief efforts, said Royalton resident and State Representative Sarah Buxton (no relation of Cat Buxton).
On Wednesday afternoon, Buxton stood with a yellow steno pad in hand, addressing a group of volunteers by Hurricane Flats Farm. The workers were caked in mud, flecks of it drying on their headlamps, their eyeglasses, in the creases of their elbows and knees. “Royalton has suffered at least $10 million in damages,” she told the volunteers, who were listening intently while scarfing down grilled chicken, pasta salad and sandwiches. “At least five farms suffered severe damage. But,” she added to the hungry group, “someone just dropped off a big wheel of cheese.”
Krista Langlois can be reached at or 603-727-3305.

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