BURLINGTON -- On a drizzly, overcast morning last week, Dave Zuckerman trudged up and down the muddy rows of his crops at Full Moon Farm in Burlington's Intervale and assessed the damage from last month's flood. Kneeling down, he yanked up a fistful of brown, wilted spinach, which will soon be plowed under -- once the soil is dry enough to support a tractor.
Nearby stood several rows of red and green lettuce that were planted in April. As Zuckerman cracked open a few heads, they revealed the rot and brown silt left inside by the floodwater, which stood chest-high in some sections of this field. This crop is also a total loss, he lamented, as were his cucumbers, melons, herbs and much of his broccoli.
Farmers throughout Vermont are still assessing the losses from the soggiest May on record, and are wringing what they can from washed-out crops. Chittenden County farmers took the hardest hit, with losses estimated at $431,000, according to the USDA's Farm Service Agency. Losses in Franklin County were second, at $247,000, followed by Addison County, at $215,000. Statewide, crop damage totaled more than $1.36 million.
But the long-term impact of the floods has yet to be tallied, according to Roger Allbee, state executive director of the Farm Service Agency. He said that most of the crops damaged by the floods were corn -- about 1000 acres, or $300,000 worth, in Chittenden County alone -- much of which would have been used to feed livestock. Come winter, many Vermont farmers will be looking to buy their animal feed.
Moreover, Allbee added, without a flood emergency declared by the president or the governor, there will be little in the way of federal disaster assistance, at least in the short term. Farmers who didn't have flood or crop insurance will probably have to eat their losses.
In the Intervale, crop damage ranged from negligible to serious. Spencer and Mara Welton at Half-Pint Farms had their field underwater for less than 24 hours and lost only three or four days' work. John and Lauren Cleary at Lucky Ladies Organic Egg Farm lost 20 of their 200 chickens, and had to use a canoe to collect eggs and haul feed to their birds.
Digger's Mirth Collective Farm took one of the biggest hits, losing three weeks of sales, or about $20,000 worth of produce. "I've been doing this for 15 years, but this is the first time I've lost a substantial amount of stuff in the growing season," said Dylan Zeitlyn at Digger's Mirth. "It was pretty much a reset on the season."
One problem for farms like Digger's Mirth, which grows mostly mixed salad greens, is that the Vermont Department of Health recently issued a statewide advisory warning consumers not to eat produce that was exposed to floodwater. Produce that can be both washed and cooked is generally OK, the health department said. But health officials are particularly concerned about leafy produce such as lettuce and spinach, which is often consumed raw and can harbor contaminants such as E. coli, fecal coliform, and chemical runoff from farms, lawns and roadways.
"Once certain produce becomes flooded, it's problematic to use it," warned Larry Crist, director of the Health Protection Division of the Vermont Department of Health. "Our approach is, better safe than sorry."
The Health Department advisory is not a ban; Crist noted that farmers will have to use their best judgment about whether their produce is safe for consumption. Some farmers pointed out that their produce is always thoroughly washed before it's sold anyway, while others note that weeks of new rain and ultraviolet light from the sun will wash away or kill off whatever harmful contaminants were left behind.
Meanwhile, at Digger's Mirth, Zeitlyn didn't seem to have lost his mirth. "Canoeing around the Intervale and over our field was almost worth it," he said.