ADDISON COUNTY — The floodwaters that covered fields in the wake of the rain and wind from Tropical Storm Irene on Sunday were strangely reminiscent of the high waters that covered fields this spring, pushing seasonal planting back by a month for some.
And Irene, which was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm as it headed north, decimated agricultural fields in some areas of Vermont and, for many others, threw hopes of a late fall growing season into question.
“It stinks,” said Sam Lester who, with his wife Maura, runs Lester Farms in New Haven. “(This spring) we lost basically a month’s worth of income, and then to lose more to the storm makes it even worse.”
Lester said a half acre of sweet corn was completely washed out and another section is in bad shape. All of his ornamental corn and a field of sunflowers also succumbed to the storm. His summer squash is gone after being completely submerged, but he’s holding out hopes that it stays sunny, dry and cool so the pumpkins can rebound.
“Our big worry now is fungus, because of the moisture,” he said.
Lester is not sure yet how badly the farm’s income will be affected this year, but he said the outcome of the pumpkins alone could be significant.
“It’s $2,000 in seed,” he said, “never mind the labor to plant, weed and babysit them all summer long.”
Other farms in the county fared better, and reported it via Facebook: Elmer Farm in Middlebury assured its CSA and farmers’ market customers that the crops were just fine, and Champlain Orchards in Shoreham reported, “We’ve weathered the storm! Irene is done, and there is still plenty of fruit on the trees for all!”
Compared to central and southern Vermont, the Champlain Valley fared well overall, with relatively low rainfall totals.
“Down south is a whole different story,” said Heather Darby, an University of Vermont Extension agronomist. “Especially in the south, round bales and feed just floated away.”
But after a tough year for weather — overall, a very wet spring and a very dry early summer — torrential rain and heavy winds were the last things farmers were hoping for.
“In an already really poor crop year, this is certainly not what we needed to finish the year,” said Darby.
In the wake of the storm, UVM Extension also sent out a fact sheet on managing flood-damaged crops. Among other things, the sheet cautions farmers to avoid handling and using heavily soaked or silted forage crops, as they can host fungus spores and bacteria unhealthy for human respiratory systems and animal consumption. It also advises farmers to check flooded ears of corn for debris and mold before storing or using it for feed.
UVM Extension has also posted online a long list of recovery resources on its home page, and UVM and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture are encouraging farmers to report projected damages to their local Farm Service Agencies as quickly as possible so they can be considered for any disaster relief funds that come down the pike.
Those funds will help lighten losses for individual farmers, said Darby. But the weather may also present losses for the industry as a whole. Darby said feed prices going into the winter are already projected to be twice what they were a year ago, and depending on corn and hay damage from this storm, there could be even less feed on the market.
Back in New Haven, Lester said he still has enough produce to keep his Route 7 farm stand at New Haven Junction open, and he still has a strong showing of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, melons and fall squash in the fields.
He said he’ll have a better idea of what crops his farm lost in a few weeks, but that since the storm passed, the weather has been ideal for drying out the crops quickly and preserving what remains.
“We’re just hoping we don’t lose what we have now,” Lester said.
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Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at firstname.lastname@example.org.