By Maggie Cassidy
Valley News Staff Writer
South Royalton — Standing next to a row of cherry tomatoes, Geo Honigford extended his arm west, pointing toward “popcorn fields” across his produce farm, Hurricane Flats.
With the hot sun scorching his mustard-colored baseball cap, he let his arm rise and fall, rise and fall, sweeping from left to right, mimicking the undulated valleys and peaks of the corn stalks’ tops.
The stalks looked like soft green and yellow waves, an appealing visual — at least to non-farmers. But it’s actually a sign of the land’s recent distress: The stalks should all be of a uniform height, Honigford said, and those slopes signal a nutrient deficiency in the soil.
In the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, the farm is working with “basically brand new soils,” he said, and “we basically had to relearn them,” including fertilizer requirements, weed issues and water retention capabilities.
“It’ll be good soil in a few years,” Honigford said. “I’m not sure how many years, because obviously I’ve never done this before.”
He’s referring, of course, to recovering from a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe that was the worst natural disaster to hit Vermont since the 1927 flood. Irene forced the nearby White River to swell and roar across his property last August, drowning an estimated $45,000 in crops and dumping layers of sand and silt that would forever alter his soil. During the peak of the flood, the area where he picked cherry tomatoes with 14-year-old daughter, Cora, last week was under 12 feet of water.
Hurricane Flats Farm, as he said at the time, was “wiped out.”
Yet one year later, Honigford echoed several Upper Valley farmers when he said that while the recovery process is ongoing, things are looking up. He’s still adapting to his new soil, his hay field is spotted with weeds and patches of sand, a new riparian buffer along the river is yet to be built, and there are other little problems Honigford considers “minor.”
Nevertheless, “if you would have told me last September that I would be at this position, I’d be psyched,” Honigford said.
No wonder: On Sept. 2 last year, the Valley News reported scenes of farmers grappling in the flood’s aftermath that included a pile of 200 dead chickens awaiting disposal outside Thymeless Herbs Farm in West Woodstock; an 81-year-old man standing on his stalled tractor as the waters rose around him and swept his cows down the river; and a farmer who ignored his own inundated fields to help save his neighbors’ homes.
Last week, the outlook was less bleak: Thymeless Herbs’ Suzy Krawczyk proudly showed new bird huts she and her husband built for the small number of turkeys, chickens and ducks that survived, and detailed plans to move their home — also deluged during Irene — farther away from the river and higher up on their property.
South Royalton dairy farmer Duke Perley, a year older now at 82, laughed as he and his niece recalled stories of boarding an emergency raft while his house flooded, and the look on the face of his 10-year-old black Labrador upon returning to a house whose rooms were covered in mud.
During a cattle auction a month ago, Perley finished replenishing his 65-cow herd, nearly half of which was carried away and drowned in the flood, and has returned to pre-Irene production levels.
And Honigford — the farmer who ignored his own plight to help his neighbors — said that with the help of volunteers and grants, he too has returned to normal.
“If that’s my biggest problem,” he said, surveying the splotchy hay, “I’m happy.”
Statistics released by the state last week also paint an optimistic picture of farms’ recovery since those devastating days last August: During a news conference at a farm in Middlesex on Wednesday, Gov. Peter Shumlin and agriculture officials said “virtually all” of the 476 Vermont farms that reported losses during the storm were still operating, even after at least an estimated $20 million in damage was inflicted on crops and crop land.
But some farms are further along the road to recovery than others. Krawczyk, for example, said she recovered only 39 of her 165 layer hens and processed 50 meat birds this year, instead of last year’s 600.
“You just don’t realize everything that you lose, all the tools, all the solar panels, everything that you worked so hard to build, to get, that everything can be gone,” she said after gathering eggs from the remaining layers. They sit in a new structure that houses birds on top and three new fattening hogs — Peter, Paula and Mary — on the bottom.
“We just do it bit by bit, stage by stage,” she said.
Perley is still wading through applications to obtain grants to repair the estimated half-million dollars of damage to his dairy farm. Even that number could be a lowball figure, he said. There’s the big, obvious costs — $5,500 for one tractor motor and $7,000 for another; $20,000 to purchase hay for his cows after his hay fields were decimated; a new truck, a new basement, a new “this and that and here and there,” he said — but there are the smaller, less obvious incidental costs that add up, as well.
“It’s hard to value anything,” he said. “You see that shovel? That shovel’s 25 bucks.”
Peggy Ainsworth, who runs Westlands Farm in South Royalton with her husband, David, said “everything is back to normal” after the farm lost 20 acres of the 30-acre cornfield that feeds their cows.
“I mean, we’ll be paying for it forever,” she added, noting they’ve been buying feed to replace the corn, “but the operations part is back to normal.”
They’re working on getting new riprap on the riverbank for the riparian buffer that was washed out.
In Plainfield, Pat McNamara of McNamara Dairy also reported things are “back to normal” after they lost 50 acres of silage corn out of a 250-acre field.
They had to stop supplying at least one buyer in June because of a slight decrease in production, but “have a good crop coming in this year,” McNamara said.
“We didn’t even try (to apply for grants). A lot more people had a lot more problems than what we did, and we would do just fine,” he said.
Patrick Crowl, whose Woodstock Farmers’ Market grocery store buys directly from dozens of farms, pointed out that even farms that didn’t suffer physical damage faced setbacks due to the interlocking relationships between producers and distributors.
His own store on Route 4, west of downtown, was forced to close after being flooded by the overflowing Ottauquechee River, and didn’t reopen until shortly before Thanksgiving — nearly three months later.
“When we went out of business … those farmers take a direct hit that way,” he said. “So it’s a real trickle-down.”
With the one-year anniversary looming Tuesday, he said, the store is struggling with how to acknowledge the flood, an event that disrupted and reshaped the lives and livelihoods of so many throughout Vermont.
“The buzz around the business community is that everybody just wants to get it over with. Everybody’s tired of rehashing the details,” he said. “It’s constant, and we just don’t want to deal with it any longer. I think once the one-year anniversary is over, everybody’s just going to breathe a big mental sigh of relief.”
As for the farmers, their reactions vary when it comes to marking the anniversary.
Perley’s Cherokee father taught him not to overvalue worldly possessions, he said, and he’s taking the recovery in stride.
Since his own home is still gutted from Irene and awaiting new electrical wiring, he’s been living in another farmhouse farther down the property.
“You have to laugh. … Like I said, it’s a bump in the road,” he said. “What the hell are you going to do?”
And Honigford said he doesn’t have time to dwell.
“Quite frankly, I’m too busy to even notice” that the one-year anniversary is coming up, he said on Thursday. “I’m flat out all the time, and I don’t even have time to think about last year.”
But for Krawczyk, the anniversary means “anxiety.”
“It’s have I done enough in a year?” she said. “Have I come far enough?”
Her own home is still in a state of disrepair, and although she was awarded some grants to buy farm materials, such as new fencing and seed, she and her family will have to take out a loan to move the house and repair it.
“I probably had the worst time with this, I did,” she said, referring to her family’s reactions to the storm. “It was more emotional for me. I think the loss of the animals was more than I could handle. And I don’t think anybody understands. You almost wanted somebody to hold your hand, because you have to make choices (about how to recover). … What do you do? And nobody can tell you the answer. You have to make your own choices.”
The application window for a sixth round of grants from the Vermont Community Foundation’s Farm Disaster Relief Fund, which was established with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, closes tomorrow. As of Aug. 6, nearly 200 farmers had been awarded a total of $1.9 million in grants out of about $2.5 million donated to the fund.