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State declares produce from storm-drenched fields unsafe

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Posted on September 8, 2011 |
By Andrea Suozzo



ADDISON COUNTY — As Tropical Storm Irene dropped a deluge of water across Vermont on Aug. 28, the late-season crops on Gildrien Farm’s River Road property in New Haven surrendered to chest-high water from the New Haven River.

Days later, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture issued the death knell for those crops left standing: Due to food safety concerns, no crops touched by floodwaters from the storm may be sold for human consumption.

The state’s ruling, said Vern Grubinger of the University of Vermont Extension, was made in accordance with food safety recommendations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The Vermont Agency of Agriculture on Thursday released these tips for supporting your local farmers:

  • Shop at your local farmers’ market and farm stand.
  • Continue to support your CSA farm during this time of need.
  • Donate to the Vermont Community Foundation and Agency of Agriculture’s Farm Disaster Relief Fund at www.vermontcf.org.
  • Donate an item or experience to Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont’s (NOFA-VT) online auction to benefit the Farmer Emergency Fund, and participate in the auction starting October 1at www.nofavt.org.
  • If you know a farmer who has been impacted, volunteer to help muck out their barn, pull up downed fence, or even make dinner. If you don't know any farmers personally but would like to volunteer, call 1-800-VERMONT.

“(The decision) is erring on the side of caution,” said Grubinger, “Given that there’s so much uncertainty about what was in the floodwaters.”

So despite the winter squash and potatoes still hanging on in the silt-covered fields, Jeremy and Caitlin Gildrien are getting ready to put their growing season to an end.

“I’m just waiting for the fields to dry to be able to clean up,” Jeremy Gildrien said early this week.

In the meantime, they will finish out their CSA and continue selling at the Middlebury Farmers’ Market the produce they had already harvested, as well as what remains in their untouched greenhouses on Halladay Road in Middlebury. Sales so far this year have allowed the Gildriens to cover their operating costs, but the storm took out everything extra.

“What it boils down to is that it was the majority of our profit for the year,” Gildrien said.

Still, he added, it could have been worse.

“We’re coming out of this pretty OK,” he said. “There were a lot of farms just devastated by the flooding that went on, but we can still plant our fields next year and we don’t have to rebuild our greenhouses.”

Annie Harlow of the Addison County Relocalization Network said that from reports she’s received, Addison County agricultural land had relatively small amounts of flood damage compared to other counties around the state. Many of the county’s largest food producers scraped by unharmed.

“When we see the devastation that happened in other parts of the state, the damage seems really small,” said Harlow. “But for farms like Gildrien, it was significant.”

Grubinger said he’s heard concern from some consumers about whether any produce grown in the state is safe to eat following the floods. This, he said, should not be a concern — just because a farm sustained flooding in some of its fields doesn’t mean the rest of its produce is unsafe to eat. In fact, Grubinger said that the best thing consumers can do to bolster farms in the wake of Irene is to go out and buy their food.

“Some flooded farms had un-flooded fields,” he said. “And we need to help the farmers that didn’t get damaged, too, by buying their products,” he said.

That’s easier said than done for some area farms. Sunshine Valley Berry Farm in Rochester — just a stone’s throw down the road from Hancock — sustained only a small amount of flooding damage and had an acre of ripe blackberries just in time for Labor Day weekend — what owners Rob Meadows and Patricia Rydle said is usually the peak of the farm’s pick-your-own season.

But last weekend travel into and out of the White River Valley was still difficult.

“We had three customers,” said Meadows. “No one is coming here, nor should they be.”

Rydle said they’re making the best of it, though, picking the berries themselves to make jam instead.

“We’ve turned into Sunshine Valley Jam Farm,” she said with a laugh.

HELP AT THE READY

Grubinger said there are plenty of financial resources cropping up for those farmers whose produce or consumer base has been affected by the flooding.

Those include the Vermont Community Foundation, the Vermont Farm Fund and the Northeast Organic Farming Association — all three are offering affected farmers grants and low- or no-interest loans.

Farmers can also contact the Vermont Economic Development Authority, which is offering loans to commercial businesses affected by Irene.

And Grubinger added that all farmers should report damages to their local Farm Service Agency, since that information will be used to apply for federal disaster assistance for farms.

Beyond financial resources, UVM Extension is offering a range of counseling and resources to affected farmers — from one-on-one business consulting to free soil testing for flooded farms.

Farmers with questions about recovery resources can reach out to the Agency of Agriculture or to UVM Extension.

Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andreas@addisonindependent.com.

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