Silty but Standing: Vermont Farms After Irene
Three Vermont farms assess the damage and look ahead
From Route 100, Kingsbury Farm in Warren looks almost normal, save for ragged slits in the plastic sides of three greenhouses and oddly angled sunflowers. Inside those movable greenhouses, hundreds of shiny red bell peppers still hang on leafy plants, ready to be plucked.
Those peppers will most likely never meet human gullets, though, because they were briefly submerged in floodwater from the Mad River, which runs along the back of this 22-acre farm and became a raging torrent during Tropical Storm Irene. The FDA deems any near-harvest produce that comes into contact with water from a large-scale flood contaminated, and hence unfit to sell.
So the four-foot-deep waters that inundated three of Kingsbury’s four fields — leaving a layer of possibly toxic silt and taking a 200-by-70-foot bite out of the land — also claimed most of Kingsbury’s late-summer and fall vegetables. Like many farms around the state, it has lost tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of tomatoes, celery, carrots, squash, herbs, leeks and more. While Irene will probably leave only a slight dent in the state’s supply of local food, its sting will linger for Vermont’s farmers, from South Royalton to the Mad River Valley to Burlington.
On Kingsbury Farm, as in Burlington’s Intervale and elsewhere, the flooded soil can’t be replanted for at least 60 days, so the storm stole several successions of winter greens. What hurts the most, though, is that the river washed away fertile ground.
“The biggest issue for us is the loss of soil and land,” says Aaron Locker, who farms Kingsbury (and runs its bakery and farm store) with his partner, Suzanne Slomin. The bank that runs alongside the farm has become a ragged mini-cliff with a 10-foot drop into a now-wider river. It looks ripe for further erosion. Previously, the farm — which is owned by the Vermont Foodbank and leased to Locker and Slomin — had a 50-foot buffer zone between crops and the river. “If we install that buffer zone, we’ve lost an entire field,” adds Locker.
Most of Kingsbury Farm lies within a 100-year floodplain, meaning the land will flood on average once every century. When the river swallowed the fields on Sunday night, the farmers slashed up their greenhouses so that the water could rush through without destroying them. They’re now full of wasted crops. In the open fields, squash vines lie tangled with irrigation hoses, some of their leaves already covered in mildew. The leafy tops of leeks, carrots and parsnips are pushed on their sides as if a giant stepped on them. “Nobody grows celery, and we have the most gorgeous celery here,” says Locker, shaking his head as he straddles a row of healthy-looking plants. All of them will get plowed back into the land.
It’s an intricate web of losses. Without winter greens, for instance, sales at Kingsbury’s farm market dissipate, too. “We sell more carrots and onions in the farm store when people come in for greens,” says Slomin, as she shapes bread dough into round loaves. “It becomes easier to go to the grocery store when you can get everything there.” All told, the pair reckons Irene dealt about a $100,000 hit to their business, and to Vermonters in general — Kingsbury supplies 35,000 pounds of food to the Vermont Foodbank each year.
“We’re going to be working with them to make sure they continue,” says John Sayles, the Foodbank’s chief executive officer. “Initially, the most urgent issue is how we stabilize the stream bank so we don’t have more erosion.”
Restaurants in Waitsfield the farm usually supplies — the Green Cup, Mint and American Flatbread — were all flooded. The farmhands at Kingsbury had just picked several hundred pounds of tomatoes, some of which the Green Cup’s chef, Jason Gulisano, planned to preserve for the winter. When the Mad River flooded the Green Cup, pushing the building next door into its side, that restaurant closed indefinitely. “We’re canning like crazy,” says Slomin, as a red pot steams on a nearby stove.
Luckily, the farm had several thousand pounds of produce in storage, including carrots. Both Slomin and Locker say they know farmers who had it much worse.
It’s a common poststorm refrain from Vermont farmers, including Christa Alexander, who runs Jericho Settlers’ Farm with Mark Fasching. The farmers’ main plots are in Jericho, but they lease a 27-acre stretch in Richmond near the Winooski River. Alexander says they harness its “incredible soil” for high-nutrient forage for lambs and pigs, though they grow vegetables there, as well.
Alexander didn’t think twice about Irene flooding the Richmond fields, since they hadn’t been inundated since 1927. On Monday morning, however, two of her farmhands called to report that the fields were underwater. “I was in shock. I started to quickly calculate what was there,” she says.
Alexander rushed to the farm to try and help save what she could, and found some lambs huddled on a tiny piece of high pasture, some chest deep in water and “not looking great.” Four of them drowned; one was saved by kayak.
“Amazingly, most of the pigs had found their way out of their paddocks and to higher ground. I didn’t know pigs could swim,” marvels Alexander, who found a 600-pound boar treading water. Some piglets, though, were not so lucky — 18 died.
Jericho Settlers’ also lost 100 bales of hay; after the flood, some of them lay scattered in the fields with their white plastic sides ripped open. The water ruined fall pasture and half of the farm’s winter crop production, about $80,000 worth of veggies such as spinach, mesclun, celeriac, beets, turnips and carrots.
While Alexander and others were busy dealing with Irene’s aftermath — the “muck and trash everywhere” — the farm’s other crops went unpicked, though volunteers helped pick some last week. Looking forward, Alexander thinks one of the most powerful ways people can help is to sign up for Jericho Settlers’ winter CSA. “So many other farmers are in worse straits than us that need outright assistance. If people can pay for shares now, that will help us,” she explains, and adds that the farm has just enough vegetables to fill those shares.
Alexander says her heart goes out to some of her colleagues, including Geo Honigford and Sharon O’Connor of Hurricane Flats Farm in South Royalton. They saw their entire crop wiped out when the White River inundated almost all of their fields. “The water came so fast you couldn’t have reacted and saved [much],” says Honigford. When he was out slashing his greenhouses, he put his boot down and saw the water was rising an inch per minute. “That’s five feet an hour.” At nearby Perley Farm, 25 cows drowned or were swept away.
When Honigford was looking to name his farm 16 years ago, he mined town historical records to discover that this flat, windswept pasture used to bear the now ominous-sounding name Hurricane Flats. He adopted it. In summer, the fields here are usually laden with 50 kinds of organic vegetables that the family sells at two farmers markets and their farm store. After Irene, they were littered with ruined onions, tattered greenhouses, and rows of ruined broccoli, corn and carrots. Honigford figures they lost tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of produce.
After the flood, the pair quickly determined that they should direct their efforts to helping their neighbors rather than themselves. “We’re not focused on saving anything on the farm. Nothing can be salvaged. We’re out helping people save their houses,” says O’Connor matter-of-factly.
Hurricane Flats occasionally sells its overflow produce to Springfield’s Black River Produce. Co-owner Mark Curran has witnessed the wide-ranging effects of Irene, since he’s intimately connected with food businesses throughout the state, from farms to retail outlets such as the Woodstock Farmers Market that were down for the count. “Pleasant Valley Foods, they’re throwing in the towel,” says Curran, referring to the Proctorsville bakery and market.
For the first time in Black River’s 33 years, it could not deliver on the Monday after the storm. “None of our employees could make it in to work,” says Curran, and hundreds of road closures meant trucks couldn’t get anywhere. The situation slowly improved during the ensuing days, and by the end of the week, some Black River trucks met a convoy of Killington-bound trucks in the parking lot of the Rutland Home Depot so food could be delivered to the isolated community.
While commiserating with the state’s food producers, Curran says he is optimistic that they will bounce back from Irene’s blow, and that supply chains will return to normal soon. “A lot of restaurants said at first, ‘This is it; we can’t do this anymore,’” says Curran. But, as they began to see volunteers, “By Wednesday or Thursday, they said, ‘Maybe we can make this work.’”
Farm aid is coming not only from volunteers but from a raft of organizations, including the state’s Department of Agriculture, Food and Markets and the USDA Farm Service Agency. The Vermont Economic Development Fund has allocated $10 million for low-interest loans to Vermont businesses that have felt the effects of Irene, including farms. Rural Vermont is forming “Rapid Farm Response Brigades” around the state to organize volunteers, and Pete’s Greens of Craftsbury has already donated $40,000 to the Vermont Farm Fund Emergency Loan Program. The VFF will rapidly approve (within 14 days) $5000 loans at zero interest for affected farmers. Pete’s Greens owner Pete Johnson says it’s a way to pay forward the help he received after a barn fire last January. “This money has already done a great deal of good [for us]. It’s coming around again and again, and will go around dozens of times,” he says.
With the cogs of aid starting to move, farmers are now thinking about their soil health. For organic farmers in particular, maintaining their certification is a concern. Nicole Dehne, the certification administrator at Vermont Organic Farmers, says such farmers do not have to worry that the fresh silt on their land might annul their organic status. “We don’t consider the land to have an application of a prohibited substance, and it won’t be disqualified in most cases,” says Dehne, except when contamination is fairly obvious, such as when a propane tank has emptied into a field.
As for floodwater filled with septic overflows and whatever else, the sheer volume that pushed through is a boon. “We consider [the floodwater] ‘unavoidable residual environmental contaminants,’” says Dehne.
Still, farmers can’t help but notice that soil health has been compromised. At Kingsbury Farm, Aaron Locker picks up a fistful of soil in each hand. One is dry and crumbly, filled with silt; the other is moist and dark. “We’ve got to figure out how to turn this [the silt] into this,” says Locker. It’s an alchemy that is likely to entail lots of compost. “We’re going to have to relearn how to grow on our land,” he adds.
Across the board, though, the farmers sound resilient and realistic. “That’s what farming is: It’s a big gamble. Every season you roll your dice,” says Jericho Settlers’ Alexander, who thinks land diversification saved her farm from greater disaster.
“The bottom line is that I have excellent soils because the river gave them to me. The dangers of [farming on] a floodplain are what happened to us,” says Honigford. After a week of watching his community come together around those in need, he says he’s feeling both exhausted and deeply fulfilled. “The most financially ruinous week of my life has also been the most rewarding week of my life.”