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After the rains

Farmers and USDA discuss options for recovery funds

WESTMINSTER—Farmer Paul Harlow estimates he harrowed under crops worth $100,000 last month after Tropical Storm Irene’s rains flooded the farm with 6-8 feet of water of dubious quality.

The record-breaking floods that followed Irene flowed across Vermont washing away the freestanding and nailed down: asphalt, trees, propane tanks, houses, soil, and livestock.

The Vermont Agency of Agriculture cautioned farmers that the water inundating their fields may carry pollutants like hydrocarbons, e-coli, and heavy metals.

The agency advised farmers to follow the federal Food and Drug Administration’s guidance, which said flooded crops were unfit for human consumption and should be destroyed.

Irene’s record-breaking floods were insult to injury for farms that had struggled through the April rains (and for northern Vermont, floods) that delayed early season plantings.

Harlow, owner of Harlow Farm, Westminster, lost his pumpkin, kale, carrot, and parsnip crops. He also lost his corn to Irene which he had sowed late in the season because of the April rains.

Most of the floodwater-borne pollutants will dissipate before the spring, said Harlow.

He expects any hydrocarbons and bacteria like e-coli will break down between now and the 2012 planting season.

Heavy metals present the “biggest unknown,” he said.

He expects the organic organizations he works with will conduct soil tests.

Unfortunately, said Harlow, he needed to lay off workers to keep money in the coffers ready for March.

The labor costs would have totalled $170,000, Harlow said.

Harlow said the April rains and Irene’s floods have cost him between $250,000 and $300,000.

The farm doesn’t carry much for federal-backed farm insurance, said Harlow.

He feels the insurance doesn’t pay out proportionally to what farmers pay in. Harlow said he knows one farmer who received a $1,000 settlement after paying in $950.

But, Harlow said he may reconsider insurance in light of Irene.

Disaster declaration

Gov. Peter Shumlin’s office announced Sept. 26 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had accepted Vermont’s request for natural disaster declaration assistance. The request covers 11 counties with three counties, Lamoille, Washington and Windham, named as contiguous disaster areas.

The declaration will help farmers access funds and loans to help with damage costs from April’s storms.

“I appreciate Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack approving this request, and hope farmers who lost crops and equipment in the spring and summer storms will move quickly to seek emergency loan assistance from the Farm Service Agency,” Shumlin said in a press release.

According to a USDA press release, the federal declaration allows qualified farmers to access low interest emergency loans from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA).

The FSA also provides other programs in addition to the Emergency Loan Program authorized through the 2008 Farm Bill.

Touring farms

Also on Sept. 26, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan toured Vermont farms and orchards to help “reassure producers” that the USDA “continues to offer services to farmers whose livestock and crops were damaged in the devastation brought on by Hurricane Irene,” said a USDA press release.

According to the press release, the USDA has “deployed personnel and resources to assist the efforts by federal, state and local authorities in response to the hurricane.”

“My heart goes out to all those in New England who are facing hardships because of this severe weather,” said Merrigan, a native of Greenfield, Mass. “All residents, farmers, and businesses should know that USDA and our federal partners are here in your communities, working with state and local officials, to make sure folks have food, shelter and necessary resources to recover from these challenges.”

Merrigan met last Monday with producers and officials in Brattleboro, Westminster, and Wilmington. Her listening tour also included towns in western Massachusetts.

Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross also participated in the tour.

Ross wanted farmers to know the state offered funding in addition to federal programs.

The state has arranged a special loan program through the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA). The low-interest loans will come with a one percent rate, no interest for two years and no payments required for the first year.

The state, in partnership with the Vermont Community Foundation (VCF), also developed the Vermont Farm Disaster Relief Fund. According to VCF’s website, the fund granted over $300,000 in the first award round.

The current estimated cost of Irene to the state is $10.5 million, said Ross.

Farmers should contact the USDA

The USDA will award assistance on a “case-by-case, farm-by-farm basis,” said USDA State Executive Director Robert G. Paquin.

Another purpose of Merrigan’s visit was to urge farmers to apply for insurance and loan programs offered by the USDA.

The USDA programs come with eligibility requirements and some with deadlines.

Paquin advised farmers to contact their local USDA Farm Service Agency Service Center for assistance.

“We’re just trying to reach every farm,” he said. “And get our arms around what’s out there.”

“We will survive this,” said Merrigan.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #121 (Wednesday, October 5, 2011).

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