Flood inundates New Haven acreage; farmer copes with loss of most crops

Addison County residents, a rainy summer means fewer picnics or fewer dips in a favorite swimming hole. But for the county’s 800-some-odd farms, bad weather can be a make-or-break proposition.
Following days of rain, the New Haven River jumped its banks on July 1, flooding much of Golden Well Farm and Apiaries in New Haven, ruining most of its vegetable crop.
“We lost basically about 80 percent of what we had planted this year,” said Golden Well farmer Nicole Burke.
“Weather is everything,” Burke continued. “It’s frustrating enough when you go out and half of your carrots have been eaten by a deer in one night. It’s downright horrifying when all of your hours that you’ve planned for since February are suddenly lost in a matter of hours to a flood.”
On Friday, June 30, Burke, 37, and husband Ryan Miller, 40, stood on alert, watching the rain and trying to assess — hour to hour — if or how much of their vegetable plantings would weather the storm.
“Our phones kept going off with flash flood warnings and we just really didn’t know how much rain was happening up in the mountains and how much more was coming down,” said Burke. “So we weren’t only afraid for our equipment and our crops, but then we started worrying about our house and our well being.
“It’s just scary when you’re on a river and there’s that much volume of water coming down. It’s a really powerful and intimidating thing just trying to work through the fear of all of the potential losses that could happen in that situation and just not really knowing what the extent of it is going to be.”
First to flood was a seasonal stream that crosses one part of the Golden Well property. As the New Haven River kept rising, water kept backing up into the stream channel until it overflowed into one of Golden Well’s fields along River Road.
“So we knew already that the loss was pretty significant,” Burke said.
But by Saturday morning, the waters appeared to be receding.
Then later that evening the New Haven jumped its banks entirely at a spot along the southeast side of River Road, flooding all but one of the farm’s vegetable plantings.
“We actually went out for a minute,” said Burke with grim bemusement. “We were looking at a used van in Rutland and by the time we came back at 10 o’clock the road was closed, the river had jumped the bank, and it probably had risen five or six feet since we had left.”
Walking through various spots around the farm on Tuesday to point out the damage, Burke gestures to a chest-high stake to show how high the water rose.
Over the past few weeks, as the sun has come out — at least periodically — many of the farm’s four acres of vegetables are starting to bounce back. But that provides Burke and Ryan small comfort.
Safety restrictions prevent produce that’s been under floodwaters from being sold for human or animal consumption. The USDA also places a 40-day restriction on planting vegetables in soil that’s been flooded, said Burke.
It is not clear how, when or if produce that sets fruit after a flood can be used. Burke has been researching the question through the state’s Agency of Agriculture and is in conversation with experts from the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, the University of Vermont Extension and a statewide vegetable growers’ listserve. She hopes to arrange a site visit with NOFA or UVM experts.
They may be allowed to sell foods that are eaten after they are cooked — winter squash, for example — but not ones like cucumbers that are eaten raw, Burke emphasized.
For now, that leaves Burke and Miller with several rows of gourds, pumpkins and flowers (ornamentals can be sold after flooding) and with the one vegetable patch that didn’t flood: about one-eighth to one-quarter of an acre out of the four acres originally planted.
Burke and Miller have farmed at this low spot along the river since 2011. They moved onto the property just after Tropical Storm Irene and bought the 170-acre farm a little less than two years ago. Although the farm is a joint operation, Burke manages its day-to-day operations as Miller has turned his attention to a companion honey kombucha business now based in Middlebury.
Burke said she and Miller researched the property thoroughly, including speaking to farmers who had owned this acreage previously. The general wisdom was that flooding, like from Irene, wasn’t likely more often than once in a century.
“Everybody said Irene was like one of those hundred-year floods and that this place had flooded along the long history of it being here since 1831 but nothing ever too bad,” Burke said.
She now questions how much that will be the case as the region and nation face more extreme weather events driven by climate change, such that farming — not to mention the entire ecosystem — enters a new era of unpredictability.
And in another Catch-22 typical of farming decisions, Golden Well planted its four acres of vegetables in the acreage closest to the river (and at the lowest elevation) because that’s where the soil is richest and has a tilth best suited for growing vegetables. Much of the land higher up on the farm’s 170 acres is heavy with clay, a difficult soil for vegetable farming, said Burke.
Burke estimates that the farm faces a loss of around $50,000 for vegetable sales that would have come through its CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, farm stand, wholesale accounts and two farmers’ markets. The farm has already had to let go of a worker and an intern.
Burke and Miller’s top priority, she said, is finding ways to compensate Golden Well’s CSA customers.
The farm has already spent/invested the CSA prepayments, so Burke and Miller are now looking into a number of options to deal fairly with these customers while facing a huge loss of income. Options they’ve looked into thus far include taking out a loan to repay customers; applying for a $2,500 grant through the NOFA emergency farm fund; bartering with remaining products, such as free entry to farm events, free kombucha or free eggs; or giving credit for next year’s CSA. Burke said she’s looking into purchasing produce for CSA customers through other local farms and that some of their farmer colleagues have even donated produce.
“The outpouring of support has been really great, really heartwarming,” said Burke, reflecting on how community members, CSA customers and other farmers have responded to the flooding.
And while Burke praised the local Farm Service Agency office for its willingness to work with them, she said that USDA crop loss estimates are geared to the kinds of pricing and yields more typical of large monoculture farms than of small, organic farms like Golden Well. Right now, Burke expects a USDA crop loss insurance payment of $1,000.
A bright spot for Burke and Miller is the extent to which Golden Well’s offerings are already diversified. In addition to growing vegetables, the farm offers farm-to-table dinners, farm stays, a summer farm camp along with a host of well-being and farm-related events. Overall, Burke said, more than half the farm’s business comes from these kinds of farm-related activities.
Additionally, some 15 acres are harvested for hay. The couple raises bees for honey. And they are now renting acreage to another farmer who’s installing a hops yard.
Part of proceeds from an upcoming Farm to Ballet event this coming Saturday will be donated to the farm for disaster relief.
Looking around the farm’s lush plantings, almost all now off limits to harvesting, Burke offered some perspective.
“We are totally at the whim of Mother Nature and the chaos and the beauty and the abundance and the loss that goes along with that,” she said. “You can hope, but there’s really no predictability and no guarantees. That’s really humbling, especially when you end up with a disastrous situation.”
To learn more about Golden Well Farm, including upcoming farm events, go to goldenwellapiaries.com.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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