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UVM Extension Plays Key Role in Post-Irene Recovery Effort

An aerial view of a farm in Waitsfield shows the devastation to crops after flood waters receded. (Photo: Lars Gange & Mansfield Heliflight)

Heather Darby, an agronomist and UVM Extension professor, has spent her career working with farmers on crop-related issues by listening to their needs and providing the latest agricultural research. Helping those same farmers, many of whom she considers friends, recover from the destruction caused by Tropical Storm Irene has been personally and professionally challenging for the field crops and nutrition management specialist.  

“Some people lost their farm and their home and everything in it,” says Darby. “You can’t imagine the destruction until you see it. We’re trying to do everything we can -- vaccinations, testing of grain and plants, clearing fields, and just getting our hands dirty and doing what needs to be done. A lot of them are isolated, stressed out and just need someone to talk to. Once you’re there and in it and see the devastation, it’s the only thing on your mind; nothing else matters.”

Darby is among the 140 UVM Extension faculty and staff serving 11 of 14 Vermont counties who have been helping farmers deal with the aftermath of Irene. Their efforts include setting up the only lab at a public university in the Northeast that tests for mycotoxins in flooded grains; conducting tests on potentially diseased plants; administering vaccines to cattle; cleaning up flooded fields; delivering grain and shavings to farms; and perhaps most importantly, answering critical questions and connecting farmers with the appropriate state and federal agencies.

The questions have come fast and furious and require answers that could have life-altering consequences. Can I still sell my crops? How do I file a claim to receive FEMA funds? What can I replant? Do you test plants and grain for disease? What do I tell people about food safety? How do I inform customers know that my crops are safe to consume?

The goal for Extension: give farmers the immediate information and on-the-ground support they need or put them in touch with someone who can.

“We’re trying to do whatever we can to help farmers as quickly as possible,” says UVM Extension Dean Douglas Lantagne, a 1977 UVM alum in forestry with more than 25 years of experience as an Extension specialist. “We know that Vermont is susceptible to potential flooding, and there have been two updates to the state’s disaster plan in the past five years, but I’ve never seen anything in Vermont on this level. You’d have to go back to the flood of 1927 (UVM Extension was founded in 1912) for something of this magnitude.”

Getting the word out

Vern Grubinger, UVM Extension professor and vegetable and berry specialist who works out of Brattleboro Vt., says he’s visited farms that suffered produce losses in excess of $200,000, adding to the estimated $2 million in losses statewide. Farms from the Connecticut River to the Lamoille River and from Otter Creek to the White River had water come up to the 100-year flood level, he says, with some reaching the 500-year flood level. One farm lost five acres of produce and was left permanently infertile.

On the other side of the fence -- sometimes literally -- farms went untouched by Irene, leaving Grubinger and other Extension agents with the dual role of helping farmers salvage crops while also spreading the word that other farms are open for business. “Most farms were spared, and there should be plenty of safe local produce available in the next few months,” says Grubinger, who along with other Extension agents have been informing vegetable farmers about specific practices to ensure food safety, including plowing under soiled crops while harvesting those that were unaffected.

Working with state and federal agencies such as the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Farm Service Agency and putting farmers in touch with the right organization has also been a major part of Extension’s efforts.

“The faculty and staff of UVM Extension have stepped up in so many ways for Vermont and Vermont farmers in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene,” says Chuck Ross ‘78, Vermont Secretary of Agriculture. “They have traveled all over the state, made their way to isolated farms and delivered for the farmers whether it be helping to clean barns, assisting with vaccinations or problem solving questions about crops and livestock. Vermont is fortunate indeed to have such a talented and dedicated group of people working on their behalf, and the Agency of Agriculture is proud to call them partners.”

Technology plays key role in recovery effort

A number of growers have sent specimens to the UVM lab to test for potential infections. Erica Cummings, a crop and soil technician, is heading up Extension’s grain quality testing lab in Jefford’s Hall where farmers can send samples of flooded grain such as corn silage and haylage to be tested for fungal infections that produce mycotoxins that could make animals sick. That alone may become a full-time job as hundreds of samples are expected to be tested over the next few weeks.    

Technology has also played an important role in connecting farmers with each other and key agencies via message boards, websites and social media like Facebook and Twitter. Grubinger created a UVM Listserv for the Vegetable and Berry Grower’s Association a few years ago that allowed 250 growers to help each other navigate flood-related issues. Extension also set up an Emergency Management Center via UVM SharePoint that shows which farms are in need of assistance as well a webpage: “Hurricane Irene Recovery Information & Resources.”

In cases where internet access has been cut off due to power outages, Extension is still doing its best to connect those in need with help. Darby, for example, picked up the phone to call six farmers from Franklin County to see if they would help her administer vaccinations to cows in hard-hit Rochester. “I knew they could give vaccinations so I called them, and they were ready to go the next day,” she says. “Farmers really care about each other.”

How to help

Several philanthropic efforts have been established around the state to provide grants, as well as interest-free loans to affected farmers. Donations from consumers will allow these efforts to provide the necessary support to our local farmers during a time of crisis.

The following organizations accept donations and administer funds for farm disaster relief: The Vermont Community Foundation, which will be making grants to support farms of any size that have sustained losses, (802) 388-3355; The Vermont Farm Fund will be offering small, low interest loans to farmers, (802) 472-5840; NOFA-Vermont’s Farmer Emergency Fund assists organic farmers with grants and zero-interest loans, (802) 434-4122; and the Intervale Farmers Recover Fund, or (802) 660-0440.