In the current winter edition of the Natural Farmer (the newspaper of the Northeast Organic Farming Association), Erin Buckwalter wrote an article titled “Vermont’s Summer of Flooding.” She noted the catastrophic flash-flooding and river flooding that hit much of Vermont during the first two-thirds of July 2023. Many communities were hit very hard with water damage, losing numerous roads and bridges. Such damages occurred when rainfall amounts of three to nine inches fell during a two-day period. She also wrote that Vermont’s farms were hit particularly hard by flooding – barely having recovered from heavy frosts in late May.
The types of water damage varied: valley farms near the Green Mountains experienced rapid flooding, while other locales suffered from water-logged fields. Some sites experienced severe erosion. For the recovery efforts following the flooding, she gave great praise to neighbors helping neighbors – with folks who gave help almost as bad off as those receiving it. Buckwalter wrote that farmers of different-sized operations effectively lost whole growing seasons.
Another less visible impact was the emotional and mental health stress suffered by farmers and farmworkers. Additionally, livestock farmers were extremely challenged to find hay last summer and autumn.
Quoting Buckwalter: “As crops have been destroyed, fields are inaccessible due to washouts from blown-out bridges and destroyed culverts; and fields have been inundated with sediment deposits and debris, rendering hay unusable.”
She was particularly generous with praises bestowed on NOFA-VT, which, with its Farmer Emergency Fund (FEF), “launched a robust response to support farmers across the state, as they began to recover from [last] summer’s extreme weather.” Since 1997, NOFA-VT has operated the FEF, supporting farmers in challenging times by moving money directly from donors to farmers in need, no strings attached. Buckwalter said that when FEF put out the call for donations, people responded generously.
But her praise pendulum swung the other direction when she described a flood relief fiasco from the appropriate federal agencies. She wrote that they had heard from farmers enrolled in such programs that “the payouts they received paled compared to the losses they painstakingly documented and reported.”
Buckwalter gave the example of Vermont farmers who tried to access federal aid, and – requesting anonymity – explained that their farm was badly flooded. What would normally have been a $15,000 crop of strawberries was decimated to about $3,000. They filled out the required forms to get retroactive insurance for their crop. They were eventually approved for aid, finally receiving a $380 check – about 3% of actual loss. Additionally, they weren’t allowed to clean up the flooded mess and replant until an inspector came to verify actual losses, weeks of precious time later.
Letting the pendulum swing back the other direction, we learn that FEF has been able amass $1.5 million, mostly through private donations, to be used if something like summer 2023 weather strikes Vermont again.
Having mentioned “sediment deposits” a few paragraphs ago, I’ll tap into Tom Kilcer’s January 2024 newsletter, called Crop Soils News (advancedagsys.com). This particular issue is titled “How much milk does your dirt support?” Kilcer, a Certified Crop Advisor, answered that rhetorical question by stating that forage has minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium and others that comprise most of the ash measurement.
Unfortunately, “ash” also has a sometimes significant amount of plain dirt mixed in during harvest. It is original dirt on the plant (raindrop splash, flooding), but mostly dirt incorporated from mower knives cutting too close and digging in the soil; dirt incorporated by tilted knife updraft; or by tedders, rakes and improperly run mergers. Using field implements aggressively “to get that last little bit of roughage” is a mindset oblivious of potentially harmful stowed away soil debris.
He stressed that cows don’t milk well on dirt. Haylage ash levels will run between 9% and 13% ash. This can impact cows’ diets. He asked nutritionist Dr. Charles Sniffen (Cornell Ph.D.) for his opinion. Using a 9% – 11% ash range, and setting rations the same, he changed the ash level. In his calculations, cows lost 1.9 lbs. of milk a day when the ash level increased 2%.
Quoting Sniffen: “The impact is from a direct decrease in digestible material. A second factor is the biased numbers entered into the ration in the first place. The apparent NDF (neutral detergent fiber) concentration will go up, shorting the animal on effective NDF with metabolic consequences. All this before we consider the impact of the endotoxins brought in with the soil.”
Kilcer asked rhetorically again: Where does ash come from? His first thought was from the farms that suffered flooding. Hinting back to my opening paragraphs, he stated that Vermont had lots of experience with this when Hurricane Irene slammed them.
Quoting Kilcer again: “They tried making silage with various inoculants, or just ensiling. One of the workers in the area said the silage went in and came out smelling like sewage. The cows crashed and some died. Flooded haylage needs to be chopped down on the field and new growth allowed to emerge. There is no way of saving it. Corn silage is more deceptive. It can look fine from the road, but the bottom 1/4, 1/2 or 3/4 may have been flooded. Each leaf axis has a pocket of soil, mostly clays, that will not be removed by rain. If the chopper can’t cut above the flood line, then mow it back on the ground.”
My own first contact with flood-damaged corn occurred during what would be my final year as a field crops Extension agent in Otsego County. Most of the rain was due to hurricane fringe. But August, September and October (1977) each received 10 inches. Everywhere that corn was grown on the Susquehanna Basin flood plain, field losses were staggering. Quality was a serious problem, if the growers could keep knives sharp. Machinery dealers (there were a lot more of them back then) couldn’t keep chopper cut bars in stock.