Federal officials see the growing need for flood funds on Vermont farms

Published: Aug. 14, 2023 at 5:58 AM EDT|Updated: Aug. 14, 2023 at 4:55 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Vt. (WCAX) - A month after devastating floods, Vermont farmers are predicting heavy losses. And they’re asking federal officials for help. The recovery is also raising new questions about agricultural resiliency in the face of climate change.

A month after the floods, Vermont farmers are still assessing flood damage and losses.

“It’s been a trying summer in actually establishing what that means for us,” said Ransom Conant of Conant’s Riverside Farms.

Conant’s Riverside Farms flooded during Tropical Storm Irene and was hit hard during last month’s floods, too.

About 200 acres of corn and 180 acres of hay were flooded out across a sprawling field. Some of the corn is tall, green and healthy, and not affected by the flood waters. But some took on several feet of toxic flood water.

Running flood-stained corn and hay through equipment or running over flood debris on fields can cause expensive damage to tractors and combines.

“We’re crossing our fingers that we don’t run into anything, and hopefully we’ll have a good harvest,” said David Conant of Conant’s Riverside Farms.

The loss in crop means farmers will have to buy feed for their dairy cattle from elsewhere in Vermont or from out of state.

Monday, top Biden administration officials were in Vermont touring farms devastated by the flooding and hearing from other farmers about their unique challenges.

Some 18,000 acres and more than $13 million in losses have been tallied so far.

Mother Nature has taken a toll on Vermont agriculture this year, including $10 million in fruit loss from May’s deep freeze.

“This is a new normal and so we’re going to have to do as much as we can to support ag with risk management, disaster aid, conservation resources to help them withstand these efforts,” said Robert Bonnie, the USDA under secretary for farm production and conservation.

From floods to droughts to deep freezes, climate change is expected to fuel more extreme weather nationwide. The Biden administration has introduced a supplemental funding package for flood relief but those would be low-interest loans through the USDA.

“Even if we get the supplemental funding, there are some practical challenges that existing programs don’t address,” said Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vermont.

The challenges and recovery for each farm will look different.

“There’s not a lot of local or regional precedence to something like that and we are all learning how to manage our businesses and our crops through these challenges,” Ransom Conant said.

In the long term, Vermont’s farm community says they want to be more resilient for the next storm, a much bigger and longer process involving conservation, wetlands, cover crops and more.