Three Farms, One Town, One Storm
Written onDecember 01 , 2011
The Perley Farm stretches between Route 107 and the White River in South Royalton, on a piece of land exactly level with the river. A highway bridge for I-89 runs right above the pasture. It’s a 40-year-old conventional dairy with a mixed herd of approximately two dozen cows, owned by Harlan “Duke” Perley and run by Larry and Penny Severance. A week before Tropical Storm Irene, Duke was in New Jersey, where he lives part time with his family, undergoing surgery to receive a pacemaker. When parts of the East Coast began to evacuate, he loaded up his two nieces, their two grandsons, and a daughter-in-law and headed up to the farm, where they thought they’d be safer.
Right across the river at Bigelow Farm, with a red dairy barn and five blue silos visible from the Perleys’, brothers Jim and Dennis Bigelow milk 45 registered Guernsey cows while Jim’s wife, Rachel, grows vegetables for farmers’ markets around South Royalton. The Bigelows are third-generation dairymen on land their grandparents bought in 1921. The farm covers a two-tiered piece of land; the lower fields sit at bank level of the White River, while the road, buildings, and additional fields perch higher up on Royalton Hill. Expecting strong winds and a bit of rain during Irene, they had simply gotten out their generator, closed up the barn, and brought in anything that could be blown away.
Following an s-curve six miles or so downstream is Hurricane Flats, a 37-acre organic farm that produces vegetables and hay. Geo Honigford and his wife, Sharon O’Connor, have owned the farm for 17 years and named it after the persistent winds that have historically whipped through the White River Valley. When it started to rain on the morning of August 28, Geo planned for a restful Sunday.
“It was funny because I was taking the day off, thinking this is going to be great,” Geo says with a sarcastic chuckle. “I’m going to nap, read the paper, drink lots of tea, take the day off. I decided I’m not going to do anything today.”
Geo spent the day checking the river gauge on the Internet. The day before, readings had hovered around 1,500 cubic feet per second, slightly higher than usual due to earlier rains. At 11:00 a.m. on the day of the storm, the gauge read 3,800 and was going up, but not enough to be alarming. After a nap, he checked it again. “It said 18,000, and I thought, ‘How could it have gone from 3,800 to 18,000 in an hour and a half?’ I’m thinking this can’t be right, the river can’t go up that fast. So I looked out the window and realized the water was up into my back pasture, so I knew that it’s higher than 18,000; it’s got to be more like 27,000.” The gauge had broken, smashed by debris that had raced down the river.
Up at the Perleys’, Duke and his New Jersey family were having lunch in the kitchen, while Larry and his 17-year-old son, Buddy, hurried to milk the cows in the late morning before the weather got bad. Duke wasn’t worried. “I said, ‘Don’t get excited, everything’s OK. I’ve lived here 40 years; I know this river like the back of my hand. It’ll come up a little bit, maybe, might go over the road a little bit.’” Using the concrete pillars from the I-89 bridge as a visual marker, they watched the river rise and then fall for a short time, then start rising at an alarming rate.
When Geo realized how quickly the water was coming up at Hurricane Flats—nearly five feet in an hour—he ran out to his barn to save what he could.
“I got my tractor and started pulling my equipment out—everything with a gearbox, everything the flood could damage,” he explains. “There was really no point in trying to save vegetables. I’d have gotten out two or four baskets of tomatoes in an hour. My equipment was much more valuable than the crops. If I lose my hay mower, I’m out $5,000. The area I had the equipment in was high and dry, but by the time I went in for my last load 20 minutes later, there was two feet of water there. It was basically a flash flood. My neighbors down the street, some of them barely got out of their houses.”
At Bigelow Farm, Jim drove down the hill from his house to the farm around 3:00 p.m. and realized he couldn’t get there—the main road adjacent to the farm had flooded. So he returned to the house and hiked down to the barn. “When I got here, the people who live down below were already here because the water was going through their house. They had already abandoned ship. The water came up to here”—he is roughly 75 yards from the river’s usual edge as he says this. “It was huge.”
Across the river at the Perleys’, the water reached the buildings. When the barn began to flood, Larry rushed out back to a mobile home on their property where a Vietnam vet named Bobby lived. “It’s a good thing he did, because Bobby was sound asleep on the couch,” says Penny, who had been frantically trying to call the farm from her house across the river. “He didn’t even know. Larry almost had to break the door down to get him out and took him up the road, three minutes away. When he came back down to the farmhouse, Larry was pushing water with the front bumper of his truck.” By then, water was knee high in the kitchen and Duke had herded everyone upstairs to dry ground.
“Colchester Rescue came and got us in the boat,” he explains. “[Those] guys know their business. I heard them coming for 10 or 15 minutes. The guy that was operating the motor, he was feeling the river out to see where the best place was to get in here. The river was just like you were in the ocean. Going right up and down, no control or nothing.”
As the boat brought them to higher ground on the railroad bed behind the farm, they watched helplessly as half their herd was swept away by the current.
“We lost all the cows on pasture,” Penny explains solemnly. “There were 10. Someone had cut the railroad fence and the 10 got out, but they were so scared that a lot of them ran and ended up in the water. We had one cow that was within two weeks of having a calf that my son watched drown.”
When the water went down the next day, the sun shone down on all three farms, all of which were covered in nearly two feet of sandy mud and debris from the river. The muck covered the lower flats at the Bigelows’ and swept across the road, flattening swaths of feed corn that had just ripened. It infiltrated the greenhouses and fields at Hurricane Flats, burying fields full of sweet potatoes and carrots. At Perley Farm, the rushing water had pulled the road into the river and choked the house, barns, and fields with mud. The farmers began what would become months of work recovering.
“We went down and helped the neighbor dig mud out of his living room,” Jim Bigelow says. “People who had houses were frantically trying to get stuff cleaned up. You couldn’t even walk down on our flats, so we weren’t worried about trying to clean up our fields. It was at least a week before we could do anything down there.”
“We had 5,000 pounds of onions drying in a greenhouse, so I tried to save them,” Geo Honigford says. “I spent an hour or two, but then the neighbors had a problem with water in their basement, and I had a pump that only I could run. When I came back, an extension agent had contacted us and said you can’t sell anything that had been flooded. So at that point, I just stopped working on my farm. I thought, ‘What’s the point of working on me?’”
Geo, who spends his winters fixing old houses as a part-time contractor, left his farm and started putting his skills to work helping others and organizing the clean up as volunteers descended on central and southern Vermont.
“People came from everywhere,” Geo says. “Boston, local folks, Hanover, New York City. A lot of them were second homeowners. Some were up here anyway, and some came up when they found out what happened. Initially they checked their own houses, but then they just said it’s more important that they stay and help. And they all did awful, tedious work. It was a big soggy mess. But people just did it. It was a really great experience. Truth be told, I learned a lot about myself and about people.”
Roughly 120 volunteers worked with Geo’s wife, Sharon, at Hurricane Flats to clean up the farm. Much of their produce is grown under black plastic, which was buried in the mud. In just a few days workers dug through and ripped up acres of plastic, a job that would have taken Geo and Sharon weeks to do. Up river, help also poured in at Perley Farm. They were shocked at the influx of donated fencing, feed, generators, shavings for animal bedding, meals, and days’ worth of people’s time.
“Half of them I don’t even know,” Penny says. “This little girl came up to me and hugged me and thanked me for letting her help us. I said, ‘Oh, no, I need to thank you!’ It’s amazing.” she says, wiping tears away with her shirtsleeve. “It’s hard for us to even imagine what took place the first couple of weeks. Just because it’s so much. It was really hard for us to have everybody come because we’ve always been the giving people, the helping people. And to have to receive the help—that’s harder.”
Back across the river, the Bigelows were cut off from any major roadway; both bridges leading to Royalton Hill were washed out. Not only could volunteers not get there but milk trucks also couldn’t get through and Rachel couldn’t bring produce to market. So they improvised.
“We used the Hillbilly Highway,” Jim says with a grin. He then explains the reference. “The night of the flood, people came from the highway. The fire department people, rescue crews. The people who were working for Lucky across the river [at Lucky’s Trailer Sales] were moving their stuff to higher ground and the floodwaters cut off both bridges. So they went up on the highway and came across to our place and cut a hole through the fence to our property to get home that way. The next morning, everybody came to my door and said, ‘Can I use that hole in the fence?’ So then we pulled the post, dug down a ditch so a two-wheel-drive car could get through. This was the only way out. Every two minutes a car would come through. UPS was even going through there.”
These days, the Bigelows are figuring out how to re-claim their lower fields from the sand dunes that took over. Their neighbors down the street don’t plan to move back into their ravaged houses. As of this writing, the farm was still without phone service. But their biggest hurdles today are only partially Irene related. They’ve been battling the invasive Japanese knotweed plants that now threaten to choke out their meadows and cornfields. The aggressive, bamboo-looking intruders had been growing along the riverbanks for years, but floodwaters washed them up into their fields to set their stubborn roots.
Their second biggest challenge? The fluctuating prices of the dairy business.
“Milk prices have been really up and down,” Rachel says. “A few years ago they were really, really low, and that kind of put us behind.”
“The price is up right now but it will probably go back down,” Jim says. “Fuel prices are always high. Seed prices are high.”
Hurricane Flats suffered nearly $145,000 worth of damage, mostly due to severe land erosion and equipment damage. The farm has received grants from NOFA Vermont and the Vermont Community Foundation’s disaster relief funds, plus proceeds from a fundraiser held by a competing vegetable grower, Crossroads Farm. Meanwhile, Geo has been working off the farm to try and recoup nearly $50,000 of lost income.
“I only work there maybe one day a week,” Geo says. “Other- wise, I’m a contractor now. I’m working for other people and other contractors. I pick up work wherever I can get it. So when I get a paying gig I don’t sit on the farm. The income—I think I can get by if I drive nails all winter.”
All told, Perley Farm lost 12 cows, 7 vehicles, hundreds of hay bales, 6,000 pounds of milk and the tank that held it, the contents of the cellar and first floor of the house, a mobile home, and lots of equipment. Since the flood, they’ve been working to re-build the interior of the house and to restore the cow barn where half the Perley herd had stood in water up to their necks. Surprisingly, only two of those cows died. One was a month-old calf that drowned, while his twin brother, tethered next to him, somehow survived. Buddy had planned to raise them as an oxen pair. Even through this magnitude of loss, though, the Severance family and Duke Perley have kept a surprisingly lighthearted sense of humor and a strong will to keep going.
“The New York Times called me in Jersey, and they said, ‘What are you going to do, Mr. Perley, you’re 81 years old?’ I told him we’re just getting started, we’re going to farm. What the hell did he think we were gonna do?” Duke exclaims. “My dad was Cherokee Indian and he was raised up here at the next place down, and he taught us to never put your values on material things because they could be gone. And if you’ve got your whole life in that, you won’t be able to start over. You’d be done. You just lost everything, and you’re lost with it. You just start over, so that’s what we’re doing.”
The new beginning at Perley Farm includes re-building their herd—and they’re off to a good start. Shortly after the flood, one of the cows gave birth to a heifer calf. Her name is Baby Irene.
Photo by Caroline English