• Editor’s Note Winter 2012

    Editor’s Note Winter 2012

    We bushwhacked our way through a tangled patch of riverbank plants. The thick stems were still bent from the rushing flood waters, parallel with the ground as if bowing respectfully to the river. That river, the Dog River, was babbling as sweetly as any other Vermont tributary that early September day, but those of us on the volunteer clean-up crew at Dog River Farm in Berlin had a lot more respect for it—and for the power of water—than we’d had just a week before.

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  • Three Farms, One Town, One Storm

    Three Farms, One Town, One Storm

    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.

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  • Three Farms, One Town, One Storm—Perley Interview

    Three Farms, One Town, One Storm—Perley Interview

    Duke Perley: We’ve farmed here for 40 years, and down the river, 135 years.

    Penny Severance: I was a neighbor, so I always came down as a little kid and helped if the cows got out. [Duke] used to come and get us to help put the cows back in. Ever since I was knee-high to a grasshopper I’ve been helping the Perleys do something with the farm. He used to give me a quarter, then it got to 50 cents. I still have all my 50-cent pieces. My husband and I have both lost our dad, so Perl’s been our godfather whether he wants us or not, he’s stuck with us. He’s who we go to for fatherly advice, anything that we need.

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  • Three Farms, One Town, One Storm—Bigelow Interview

    Three Farms, One Town, One Storm—Bigelow Interview

    DK: What was it like when the flood came through?

    Jim Bigelow: My grandparents bought the farm in 1921, right before the flood of 1927. Dennis was telling stories about how my dad said they weren’t able to do anything with that field down there for five years after the flood of ’27.

    That used to be a schoolhouse over there. (He points past his lower field to a brick building across the river, next to the Perley Farm.) My grandmother was a schoolteacher. The ’27 flood came up to the bottom of the windows, and this time it got to the top of the windows. Of course things have changed since then. The interstate was put in over the river and I think the bridge changes the flood pattern, and that’s why it totally wiped out Perley’s.

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  • Three Farms, One Town, One Storm—Hurricane Flats Interview

    Three Farms, One Town, One Storm—Hurricane Flats Interview

    DK: When you heard on the news that the storm was coming, what did you think?

    Geo Honigford: I know from history that storms and floods happen. It never occurred to me that we’d get that much rain. The standard joke when I was on jobsites the week after the hurricane—I spent the whole time working on other people’s houses—was ‘oh we don’t have to do that, the river will never get THIS high again.’ It never occurred to me that the river would get up there. We were buttoned down for wind. We had greenhouses full of crops and we were really concerned about wind. And it turned out that we had no wind whatsoever. Just copious amounts of rain. The sides of my greenhouses are slashed – we did that. We waded out into the river, and the pressure was building up on the greenhouse sides and was going to collapse it. So we had to let the water go through the greenhouse, basically reverse the process; instead of battening them up, we had to open them up. We didn’t have time to open them up properly so we just took knives to them. It’s a lot cheaper to lose the plastic than to lose the frame.

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  • Farmers' Kitchen—Parse the Parsnips

    Farmers' Kitchen—Parse the Parsnips

    Life on a vegetable farm slows down in the late fall and early winter. Most of the daily chores that keep us hopping the rest of the year—seeding, planting, weeding, and harvesting—are pretty much completed by this time, with some notable exceptions: We’re still harvesting the hardiest of crops, including parsnips, kale, spinach, and Brussels sprouts, even with the snow flying. But most of the land lays fallow, sporting only the nutrient-rich cover crops of winter rye and oats.

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  • The Other Great Flood

    The Other Great Flood

    When the 1927 flood hit, devastating damage occurred on Vermont farms, primarily losses of livestock and barns. And yet the same spirit of cooperation evident after Irene was very present back then, as illustrated by the flyer at right, which could have been written today.

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  • A Poet and His Apples

    A Poet and His Apples

    At the Robert Frost Stone House Museum in South Shaftsbury—his Vermont residence from 1920 to 1928—an ancient and magisterially gnarled Snow apple tree presides over the grounds. Placed, probably by the poet’s own hands, in a commanding spot directly behind the house, it was the only one of its kind among the hundreds of apple trees planted on the 80-acre farm during the 1920s. The rest of the orchard, which Frost envisioned as “a new Garden of Eden with a thousand apple trees of some unforbidden variety,” was set behind the barn and populated with McIntosh, Northern Spy, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, and Red Astrachan trees.

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  • From the Ground Up

    From the Ground Up

    There’s no doubt the colorful Earthgirl Composting signs on my black Volvo catch people’s attention and pique their interest. Some smile, wave, or give me the peace sign or a thumbs up. Others laugh when they read my “curbside compost pickup” sign. Those are the people who don’t understand what I do. I can only imagine what they think!

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  • A Canning Party

    A Canning Party

    The canning party began innocently enough. One young mother, living far from her own mother, wanted to learn how to preserve her garden’s bounty. Casually, at church, she asked if she could come help me can. We set up a time, and Sarah and I spent a happy couple of hours pressure-canning green beans.

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  • Set the Table with Kombucha

    Set the Table with Kombucha

    As cold and flu season approaches, health-conscious Vermonters are reaching back through the ages to brew kombucha, a fermented beverage with a unique taste and widely touted benefits to the immune system. Although kombucha’s benefits are of use all year long, the start of a Vermont winter seems a good time to investigate this intriguing drink.

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  • The Threats from Upstream

    The Threats from Upstream

    If only it had been simpler. If only the rain had just washed the crops away.

    But the floodwaters of Tropical Storm Irene didn’t wash much Vermont produce away. Instead, crops on flooded farms became covered in water and silt that potentially harbored chemicals or microbes that could endanger human health. Accordingly, on September 2, the Vermont Department of Agriculture released a warning about the consumption of fruits and vegetables that had been inundated by floodwaters. Borrowing the succinct wording of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Agency stated that “there is no practical method of reconditioning the edible portion of a crop that will provide a reasonable assurance of human food safety.” In other words, flooded crops had to be thrown away.

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The Threats from Upstream

Raging River

Written By

Rick Enser

Written on

December 01 , 2011

If only it had been simpler. If only the rain had just washed the crops away.

But the floodwaters of Tropical Storm Irene didn’t wash much Vermont produce away. Instead, crops on flooded farms became covered in water and silt that potentially harbored chemicals or microbes that could endanger human health. Accordingly, on September 2, the Vermont Department of Agriculture released a warning about the consumption of fruits and vegetables that had been inundated by floodwaters. Borrowing the succinct wording of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Agency stated that “there is no practical method of reconditioning the edible portion of a crop that will provide a reasonable assurance of human food safety.” In other words, flooded crops had to be thrown away.

That decision did not sit well with some farmers who believed the warning was too restrictive by including root vegetables. However, the FDA includes root vegetables in their guidance because there is research that root crops can up-take contaminants. Even for annual spring floods that are not as massive or destructive as Irene, the FDA prohibits the sale of produce that comes in contact with floodwaters, because it always have the potential to contain microbial pathogens.

According to the Vermont office of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, as of early November more than 460 farms in Vermont had been assessed for damage due to Irene. Ten percent of the state’s fruit and vegetable operations were affected, with an unofficial total of 500 acres. Roughly 6,000 acres of feed corn, 225 acres of soybeans, 6,500 acres of hay, 1,700 acres of grazing pasture, and 1,000 acres of maple sugarbushes were damaged. And 9,300 acres of actual farmland was damaged, some of which included the crops mentioned above, some of which did not.

At Dog River Farm in Berlin, there is little evidence of the flood’s effects today, but farmer George Gross estimates a loss of $100,000 in sales because his produce was deemed adulterated. He offered to pay for the testing that would prove otherwise, but the FDA’s position is that only a very extensive series of tests conducted throughout a farm property can provide the assurance needed to allow flooded produce into the market. Contaminants carried in sediments are deposited unevenly and may only pose a health risk on a small portion of an inundated field; as a result, like a game of Battleship, many tests might be necessary to find that one hot spot. How many would a farmer need to be 100 percent sure there was no risk? The cost for such testing could exceed the value of the lost crops.

The chief concern right after the flood was the immediate threat of microbial contamination. Twenty-two of Vermont’s wastewater treatment facilities reported significant problems as the result of Irene, ranging from pump station overloads to pipeline breaks. Sewage from septic systems and manure pits might also have gotten into floodwaters. As of this writing, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources wasn’t able to provide an estimate of the amount of sewage released into waterways, but the threat from biological agents is considered temporary because these contaminants tend to break down over time. A general guideline issued to farmers is to till fields once the soil has dried and then to wait 60 days before sowing an edible crop; however, Vern Grubinger, the vegetable and berry specialist at the University of Vermont Extension, suggests that a wiser approach is to plant a cover crop and to wait until the following spring to plant edible crops.

More ominous are the long-term threats posed by heavy metals, hydrocarbons, and a host of other chemicals that are the legacy of our historic misuse of rivers and wetlands as the recipients of a wide array of pollutants. Organic farmers were especially worried that a positive test for any of those compounds in their soil could result in the decertification of their organic status, with recertification only after a mandatory three-year wait. But Nicole Dehne, coordinator of recertification for the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of Vermont, says that very few organic farms affected by the flood actually need to be tested, and she suspected that none would need recertification. The reason is thought to be the intensity and large amount of water transported by the flood—this apparently diluted contaminants, and as of November 1, no fields were found with any contamination above normal background levels.

As for animal feed, farmers are still in the process of testing flooded hay, soybeans, and corn harvested after the storm. (Some acreage was covered with too much silt to be harvested.) Unlike food for human consumption, animal feed can be used if it passes certain tests, but until those tests come back, dairy and livestock farmers must buy feed elsewhere. With the cost of feed rising in general, and with the number of farms in the Northeast damaged by Irene and in need of feed, for some farmers the cost of keeping animals this winter will be unusually high.


Given that it was primarily floodplain farms that were affected by Irene, many Vermonters are now rethinking their human relationship with rivers and floodplains—what they are, how they function, and how they have been historically used and abused—and about the presence of so many contaminants upstream from so many farms.

As noted by Elizabeth Thompson and Eric Sorenson in Wetland, Woodland, Wildland: The Natural Communities of Vermont, floodplains are very active parts of the landscape. In their normal state, streams and rivers continuously move back and forth across floodplains, eroding material in some places and depositing it in others. During flooding events these processes are exacerbated, but floodwaters normally remain within the boundaries of the natural floodplain that formed and evolved in concert with the river. Unfortunately, a large percentage of most floodplains today have been altered and exist in what can be described as unnatural conditions.

Prior to European settlement, floodplains in this region were primarily forested. As described by Thompson and Sorenson, floodplain forests were characterized by spectacular stands of tall silver maple and American elm that stretched for miles along major rivers; more diverse forests of red oak, sugar maple, and other hardwoods existed on the slightly higher terraces where flooding was less frequent. But with river corridors serving as early transportation routes for the new settlers, and the fertile, rock-free floodplain soils providing excellent farmland, the original floodplain forests were mostly cleared by the late 1700s. Although much of Vermont’s upland forests have regenerated, only small fragments of floodplain forest remain, and few areas have been allowed to revert naturally.

Floodplains were the favored locations for many uses other than agriculture, as well. Railroads and highways were often built on raised beds, and water-powered mills were replaced with factories and industries that used water for waste disposal. Today, in many cities and towns floodplains provide the cheapest land to site recreational fields, affordable housing, landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and other facilities. The consequences of this strategy have been twofold: a severe reduction in the capacity of floodplains to blunt the impacts of flooding and a multi-fold increase in the amount of contaminants carried in surging floodwaters, including microbes, heavy metals, hazardous chemicals, hydrocarbons, pesticides, and more.

Our local history of past flooding events adds to our understanding of floods and floodplain ecology. In the 1927 flood, considered one of the most significant events in the history of Vermont, more than 1,200 bridges were lost, miles of railroads and roads destroyed, and 84 lives lost. According to the Vermont Flood Survey, the direct damage to agriculture was estimated to be $1.5 million, and that damage was attributed to the flooding of plants, the erosion of agricultural land, the loss of livestock, and additional land rendered useless due to the deposition of sand and gravel.

Today, local governing bodies bear the responsibility to review development—including the establishment of new farmland—to ensure it is safe from flooding or that flooding is tolerable. Reed Sims, a Geographic Information System (GIS) specialist with the Vermont office of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, performed an analysis, at Local Banquet’s request, to determine the current acreage of farmland found on soils classified as potentially being flooded at least once in 100 years. He found that roughly 19 percent of Vermont’s current cropland and hay fields—91,000 acres—share this potential risk. (This number does not include Essex County, where soil surveys were incomplete.)

In response to Irene, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture used GIS mapping to locate all the contaminant threats upstream from, and around, farms that were affected by the flood. Carey Giguere, the Agency’s agrichemical management section chief, says this information could potentially be made available for all farms in the state. Farmers can contact the Agency to get assistance in locating potential upstream threats to their farms during future floods.

As for what can be done about threats from upstream, as of this writing there were no legislative proposals or policy recommendations being considered in Vermont that would seek to regulate contaminants that threaten farms, according to Charity Carbine-March, an environmental health advocate at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. And farms have little control over what contaminants are around them. As Carey Giguere says, “You can’t ask your neighbor to burn wood instead of oil.”

With the prospect of more catastrophic weather events in Vermont’s future, it will be the responsibility of both farmers and local communities to ensure a safe and steady supply of locally grown food while remaining vigilant about the proper management of our waterways and floodplains.

About the Author

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Rick Enser

Rick Enser is a consulting conservation biologist living in Braintree. He writes and speaks on a variety of natural history and conservation topics, and spends much of his time renovating an 1840 farmhouse, cultivating native plants, and playing with his 3-year-old son.

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