Published September 22, 2011 in the Rutland Herald
A corn field that suffered flooding from Tropical Storm Irene on Alfrecha Road in North Clarendon is shown here on Wednesday.
Photo: Cassandra Hotaling Hahn / Staff photo
Post-Irene: Some 15,000 acres of Vt. farmland damaged; number expected to rise
Nearly 15,000 acres of Vermont farmland were damaged from Tropical Storm Irene with state and federal inspectors expecting to find additional damage in the days to come.
Corn represents the bulk of the insured crops: 389 policies, 71,819 acres with an insured value of $26.7 million. Most of the corn is grown as silage or feed for dairy herds. Other insured crops include apples and soybeans.
Noticeably absent from the list are fruits, vegetables, hay and wheat, which are not insurable under the regular federal crop insurance program.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Risk Management Agency, the Federal Crop Insurance Corp. issued 446 policies to farmers in the state covering 76,000 acres with an insured crop value of $32 million.
Robert Paquin, Vermont director of the federal Farm Service Agency, said as of Tuesday inspectors had visited 367 farms with the likelihood that number will exceed 400 farms by the time the final damage assessment is made.
There are 7,000 farms in the state of all kinds, including 993 dairy farms,
“We're trying to visit and assess the damage on every farm that's suffered damage,” Paquin said Tuesday. “We don't care if they participated in a USDA program in the past or whether they're insured or uninsured or whatever their status is because it's a case-by-case assessment of what assistance is available.”
Paquin said reported damage includes 5,200 acres of corn, 4,720 acres of hay, 135 acres of soybeans, 430 acres of fruits and vegetables and more than 4,400 acres of damaged farmland estimated at $3 million.
Paquin said 75 percent of the estimated 80,000 acres of corn being cultivated was insured. He said the number of acres is down from last year in part because of flooding this spring. Last year, 92,000 acres of corn were cultivated.
In Windsor County, some farms were severely damaged while others were unscathed by Irene's flood waters.
Farms in the county reported damage to corn and “hay fields that are covered in silt and debris (so) the crops aren't going to be accessible for the rest of this season,” said Christine Lary, executive director of the FSA Service Center in White River Junction, which covers Windsor and Orange counties.
Lary said in some places farmland was completely washed away, and one small dairy farm in the South Royalton area lost a large part of its herd.
She said no vegetable growers in Windsor and Orange counties had crop insurance.
Lary said the impact of Irene likely threatens the livelihood of some farms.
“I have a couple that have lost fields that they're not going to be able to crop and they're going to have to cull more animals than they normally would cull,” she said, “and that could very well be the beginning of the end.”
Craig Miner, executive director of the FSA Service Center in Middlebury, said several hundred acres of corn and several hundred acres of hay were damaged along the Otter Creek in Addison County. Miner said that's silage corn and hay that farmers will be hard pressed to replace.
“It's going to be difficult for farmers to find other farmers to have corn silage to sell,” Miner said.
He also said there was less corn planted this year because of the spring flooding.
To date (pre-Irene), the Federal Crop Insurance Corp. program has paid out $300,000 in claims to the state's farmers.
More than half of the claims paid, $164,100, were paid to farms in Addison County for damage to corn, soybeans and sunflowers.
Total premiums paid statewide were $2.4 million of which the government paid $1.6 million with farmers picking up the remaining $800,000.
Nationally, insurance covers 65 percent to 70 percent of a crop's value.
Robert Parsons, a University of Vermont Extension agriculture economist, said most of the corn grown for silage had not been harvested when Irene hit the state.
“Now, if you've got corn silage, we're not sure yet what the losses are going to be,” Parsons said. “If your corn was flattened and destroyed, then it's obvious the crop is destroyed.”
But he said if the corn is still standing, there could be problems that aren't so obvious and will take time to assess.
The USDA has pegged the price of corn at $6.01 a bushel.
How much a farmer receives depends on the type of policy and amount of coverage, which in Vermont ranges from 50 percent to 75 percent on the crop's insured value.
Most of the corn policies issued in the state are based on yield price at harvest, which could be higher or lower than the $6.01 a bushel price. A yield policy is less expensive than a revenue policy, which reimburses the farmer at $6.01 a bushel.
The cheapest policy, called catastrophic coverage, or CAT, pays 55 percent of the $6.01 bushel price but only after a farmer loses 50 percent of their crop.
“The thing is we subsidize CAT premiums 100 percent but you pay a $300 an acre administrative fee for it, so it's the cheapest kind of insurance,” USDA spokeswoman Shirley Pugh said. “But you don't really get enough back out of it to make any real difference.”
Although the coverage falls short of making a farmer whole, Pugh said a farmer enrolled in one of the USDA's insurance programs is then eligible to qualify for disaster assistance.
But Paquin stressed that farmers that aren't enrolled in a USDA program may still be eligible for financial aid, often in the form of grants.
He said farmers in need of assistance should contact one of the nine regional Farm Service Agency offices in the state.
Paquin said the FSA administers at a minimum six disaster relief programs.
“There are some (programs) that may have a prerequisite for insurance but most do not,” he said. “And even those with that prerequisite, they have certain waiver situations.”
As a prerequisite for receiving future disaster assistance, Congress in the last farm bill attempted to encourage farmers to have crop insurance or be covered under the federal Non-Insured Crop Assistance Program, or NAP.
Because NAP doesn't pay very well, Paquin said many farmers don't sign up for the program. Of the 552 NAP policies issued in Vermont, 500 covered hay, he said.
Paquin said the state in recent years has seen a proliferation of small vegetable and fruit growers and many of those farmers have not traditionally participated in USDA programs, making them ineligible for disaster relief.
The state's farmers have likely lost $3 million in crops that would have gone to market because of a U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulation that bans the sale of crops suspected of being contaminated, according to state agriculture officials. In this case, crops that came in contact with Irene's flood waters triggered the FDA ban.
Paquin said farmers, including uninsured vegetable growers, may qualify for assistance under the federal Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payment Program, or SURE, which pays farmers up to $100,000 for lost crop revenue incurred through natural disasters.
Payments are calculated based on 60 percent of the difference between the SURE disaster program guarantee and total farm revenue.
He said the pre-qualification for aid is waived for new farmers, limited resource (income) farmers and for minorities.
On a case-by-case basis, he said the goal is to “make as many producers eligible for as much assistance as possible.”
The Emergency Conservation Program, covers 75 percent of the damage to crop land.
Under another program, farms that lost livestock are eligible for up to $1,000 for a mature cow.
“There are number of those programs that anyone is eligible,” Paquin said.
He said there are also low interest disaster farm loans available.