Before the ground was warm enough to plant, grower Micah Barrett began raising crops like watermelons, eggplants and tomatoes—eventually transplanting them into the rich Vermont soil of his greenhouse, hoping for a bountiful fall harvest.
Within hours last week, those hopes were dashed when floodwaters submerged the small farm, which he valued at $250,000. He still hopes to replant short-season crops like mustard greens, spinach, bok choy and bananas.
“Crop damage is a very solid way to measure flooding, but job loss is harder to measure,” said Barrett, one of five co-owners of Dagger’s Mirth Collective Farm in Burlington, Vermont. “We are all saddened and heartbroken by this.”
That heartbeat was felt by farmers in northeastern states when the floods struck at the worst possible time, when many plants were too early to harvest, but too late to replant in the region’s short growing season.
The storms dumped up to two months of rain in a matter of days in some parts of the region, surpassing the amount that fell after Tropical Storm Irene hit in 2011, causing massive flooding. Officials have described last week’s flooding as Vermont’s worst natural disaster since the 1927 flood.
Climate scientists say that floods in different parts of the world are caused by climate change, with warmer climates creating storms, which bring more heavy rains. Additional warming scientists predict is coming will make it worse.
Severe weather in the plains, possible flood risks in the northeast
Diggers’ Mirth is one of seven commercial organic farms located at the Intervale Center, according to Melanie Guild, director of development for the center, which manages 350 acres in the heart of Burlington.
Operators of the center, located near the Winooski River, have long been aware of the risk of flooding. As the forecast called for heavy rains, the center reached out to hundreds of volunteers to harvest as much as possible.
“It’s smack dab in the middle of the growing season so whatever was ready to harvest was pulled. What was left was wasted,” Guild said. “There were cabbages floating in the flood.”
All seven fields were washed away. He said the damage is likely to be greater than Irene, where the damage is about $750,000.
Not all farms that suffered damage grew vegetables or flowers.
Maplewind Farm in Richmond, Vermont, which produces pasture-raised livestock, was also targeted.
Beth Whiting, who owns the farm with her husband, said that despite heavy rains in the forecast, she assumed her turkeys would be fine because she never saw the flood reach the area where she kept the birds.
Then at 3:30 a.m. on July 10, the nearby Winooski River rose higher than they ever imagined, Whiting said. About 120 of the 500 working in the canoe managed to save the turkeys. Workers also rescued about 1,600 chickens, but another farm lost 700.
He said that we had no idea that the flood would be so dramatic.
According to Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts, the flooding forced many farmers to make tough choices. Dairy farmers who found roads to processing plants impassable were forced to dump milk.
Another problem is the loss of corn, an important feed source for the dairy industry. He said thousands of acres were completely or partially submerged or flat and unusable. Flower farms were also destroyed.
“Some of the blueberry bushes are underwater. That’s very important for your own operations. Once the produce is underwater, it can’t be used,” he said.
As of late last week, Vermont farmers had reported 7,000 acres of crop damage, Tebbetts said, adding that many farms must clean up debris washed into their fields when rivers overflowed.
In Massachusetts, at least 75 farms were damaged by flooding, with about 2,000 acres of crops worth at least $15 million, according to the state Department of Agricultural Resources. That number is expected to rise as more damage is assessed and long-term effects are assessed.
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Damaged farms ranged from community farms to a 300-acre potato farm that was completely destroyed just weeks after harvest to a 230-member “Community Supported Agriculture” farm just five weeks into the 30-week program.
Massachusetts Governor Maura Haley said the disaster required an unprecedented effort to pursue federal, state and private money. On Thursday, he announced the Massachusetts Farm Resiliency Fund, a partnership between philanthropic organizations and private foundations.
“It’s just such a shame,” Haley said this week after visiting the flooded fields. “Unlike Irene, it happened right at harvest time, so that year’s crops were ruined.”
In Connecticut, state Agriculture Commissioner Brian Hurlburt said flooding affected about 2,000 acres of farmland, much of it in the Connecticut River Valley.
According to Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, the flooding is part of a larger environmental crisis.
“What’s going on here?” Lamont said as he spoke in front of a flooded farmer’s field in Glastonbury. “Look behind us. We were irrigating that a few months ago, desperate for water in the middle of a drought. And today it’s Lake Wobegon. And then what do you do?”
Kate Ahearn, who runs Fairweather Growers along the Connecticut River in Rocky Hill, said the floodwaters took a toll.
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“It’s our livelihood that’s at stake,” he said. “Fairweather growers will lose nearly 300 acres of crops and more than half of our labor force, plus all of our wholesale accounts.”
Officials in Pennsylvania are monitoring the rain.
“When the water is rising, it’s a big concern because you get a lot of standing water and the soil starts to loosen, turn to mud and the mud starts to wash away. When the soil and mud washes away, so do the crops,” said David Werner of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.
Recently, a farmer called Penn State Extension in Bucks County to report that his crops were looking wilted, like they hadn’t been watered in a while, said Margaret Pickoff, extension horticulture educator.
It was the opposite: the soil was waterlogged, plant roots were unable to take in oxygen, and were dying.