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Donald Heleba, right, and his son, David Heleba, harvest potatoes at Heleba Potato Farm in Rutland Town on Thursday. Heleba said his fields were, for the most part, not damaged.
Photo: Cassandra Hotaling Hahn / Staff photo

Farmers facing heavy losses

Five minutes before the milk truck arrived, the power at Doug Turner’s farm went out and six days’ worth of milking went down the drain.

“That was a week’s worth of labor gone,” the Waitsfield dairy farmer said Saturday — almost a week after the costly Irene-induced outage.

But that loss pales in comparison to other damages on Turner’s farm and other dairy, vegetable and fruit operations around the state.

The exact extent of the devastation is still being tallied. But the estimates gathered by the federal Farm Service Agency in Vermont by the end of last week were bleak enough.

In Rutland County alone, the agency reported a “conservative” estimate of 1,000 acres of corn destroyed and 35 farms with damage to land, crops and livestock.

That damage was representative of what the agency was seeing in a number of other areas, including Caledonia, Bennington, Windham, Windsor, Washington and Chittenden counties.

“In some cases we have people who lost all of their crops,” FSA Vermont Executive Director Robert Paquin said. “Whole vegetable farms were wiped out.”

And the flooding wasn’t the first ill to beset farmers this year.

After a late start due to poor spring weather, many farmers were counting on a strong finish to the growing season, Paquin said.

Irene dashed those hopes and, potentially, any chance of a last-ditch planting.

Middlebury organic vegetable farmer Jeremy Gildrien’s field alongside the New Haven River was completely underwater last week. The field’s soil survived but he said the crops growing in it are inedible because of their exposure to the floodwater and the land itself is off limits for new planting until potential contagions that seeped into the soil are gone.

“I might have to wait 60 days for the pathogens to be out of the soil,” he said. “If that happens it will be too late to plant anything else this year.”

The state Agency of Agriculture directed farmers last week to destroy any crops in which the edible portion of the plant came in contact with floodwaters. Plants that haven’t developed edible portions yet are not “automatically deemed adulterated,” agency officials said, while plants exposed to floodwaters that didn’t touch the harvestable portion should be “evaluated for food safety risk.”

Even corn ground up into feed for dairy cattle is of suspect value, according to dairy farm financial specialist Robert Parsons who works with the University of Vermont Extension.

“It’s going to take a week to determine if a lot of the cow corn is edible,” Parsons said. “There could be mold growths that would even be toxic to cows.”

The dollar amount on Vermont’s agricultural losses isn’t certain. But Vern Grubinger, a vegetable and berry specialist with UVM extension, said the damage he’d seen in Windham County alone added up to a small fortune.

“From a couple dozen farms I’ve seen about $1.5 million in lost crops and equipment,” he said.

The good news is that much of the lost crop was insured, according to Pam Smith, the UVM Extension insurance coordinator, who said that 70 percent of the state’s corn crop was insured along with much of the other vegetables and fruits.

Smith and Paquin said they are urging farmers to report their losses in a timely fashion and not to destroy evidence of damage until a loss adjuster could evaluate the damage. Smith can be reached at 349-2966 while FSA offices are located in every county.

But the insurance money and federal funds that will become available through FSA programs such as the Emergency Conservation Program and the Supplemental Revenue Program won’t immediately reach farmers like Turner who said he’s hurting now.

“My big complaint is there’s a lot of funds out there but they’re tied up waiting for authorization,” he said. “We don’t need loans. A lot of farmers are already debt-ridden. People have no idea how long term needs are and how much we need money up front. ... We need to get agricultural relief in the form of grants. People need to call their congressional delegates.”

Paquin said he understands Turner’s frustration. Right now, the biggest pot of money available to struggling Vermont farmers is the federal agency’s Emergency Loan Program, which provides low-interest loans to farmers.

But while Paquin said the loans might not be what farmers want, they provide a lifeline until other forms of relief can be delivered.

“I know farmers don’t need any more loans but these are useful tools to streamline and restructure borrowers and they bridge the gap until other program funds are available,” he said.


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