Friday, September 23, 2011

Telling the story of farmers affected by Hurricane Irene in New York and Vermont

JenWhile the Eastern coastline braced for Hurricane Irene back on August 27 and 28, it was inland rural and farm country that unexpectedly bore the brunt of the storm damage through extreme flooding. While we’ve recently been talking about extreme drought affecting farmers, our farmers in the Northeast received far more rain than usual this year, a combination of a wet, cool and long spring with record rainfall and higher-than-normal snowmelt. By August, the groundwater table was still quite high. Then Irene roared in.

In New York, in the Hudson Valley, the Catskills and the Black Dirt region, farmers were flooded out, with farm fields ripe for harvesting completely underwater. In Vermont, rivers overflowed their banks, blowing out bridges, collapsing houses, flooding fields, and in some cases completely changing their course, so that where a farm field once sat, a river now runs through it.

Both New York and Vermont have received federal disaster declarations, meaning that farmers and other residents who suffered losses from Irene can receive disaster payments to reimburse for those losses. Dairy farmers were particularly hard hit, with no choice but to dump their milk when milk trucks couldn’t get to their farms for pickups due to roads being completely destroyed. There’s little that could hurt more for a dairy farmer than to watch their hard work run down the drain, except the loss of members of their herd--many farmers saw their cows washed downstream in raging rivers. In the weeks since, many farmers have already been reimbursed for their dumped milk and they’re slowly getting back to normal, although some farmers are still relying on generators for power. And many are determining whether they’ll even be able to plant crops in their fields by spring.

With power and phone lines back in operation, farmers are beginning to call the Farm Aid hotline, and we’re directing them to resources that can be of assistance. But the farm communities in New York and Vermont have proven to be extremely supportive. Efforts in Vermont have raised nearly $2 million dollars in disaster relief, through a Vermont Public Radio appeal and a concert given by the Vermont band Phish. In the Black Dirt region, a fundraising concert is scheduled for this weekend. The way that communities and neighbors have pulled together has been at once inspirational and also completely expected—that’s just the way neighbors do things in communities like these.

Some of the anecdotal stories we’ve heard:

• A CSA farmer, after accessing the damage to his farm, informed his members that he was very sorry but he didn’t expect to be able to distribute any more produce. Each and every CSA member reacted positively, many saying they already received more than they had expected, and they’d all sign up again for next season.

• A young farm couple, their farm now a river, are temporarily growing again on land donated to them so they can get back on their feet.

• Farmers cut off from civilization, their driveways and roads washed out, got knocks on their doors from neighbors who walked, climbing over debris and fording rivers, with shovels and rakes in hand to help clean up.

• Crews of volunteer teams, some as large as 100 people, doing everything from cleaning up debris-strewn fields to helping to rebuild barns.

• Anonymous donations received by farmers, with notes that say “We appreciate your hard work” and “Thank you for feeding us.”

The cleanup from Hurricane Irene will take months, if not years. But a good start has already begun, with the resilience, volunteerism and generosity leading the way.

If you’re a farmer affected by Hurricane Irene, share your story with us. Or let us know how you’re supporting your local farmers in this time of rebuilding.

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