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  • Erin Buckwalter

Vermont’s Summer of Flooding: Reviewing the Short-Term Impacts and Our Response

By Erin Buckwalter

Rain this summer brought widespread devastation to the state and, in particular, to our farms, many of which had already been hit hard by a late frost earlier in the season. Along the spine of the Green Mountains, valley farms tending rich riverside soils found themselves quickly flooded, while others contended with months of water-logged fields due to the relentless, record-breaking precipitation, and others experienced severe erosion.

As we’ve worked to support farms across the state through the last frost, the flood, and the persistently wet weather, it’s clear that extreme weather is having an enormous impact on our state’s farm, food, and community resilience. Farmers of all sizes lost their whole season– with financial impacts up to the hundreds of thousands of dollars– to say nothing of the emotional impact and mental health on farmers and farmworkers. Farmers have experienced flood-damaged fields and crops, mini-landslides, and erosion issues. Livestock farmers have been extremely challenged to find hay this summer: as crops have been destroyed, fields are inaccessible due to washouts from blown-out bridges and destroyed culverts, and fields have been inundated with sediment deposits and debris, rendering the hay unusable. 

The disaster relief programs currently available from the federal government are not designed to support the small, diversified, organic farms that comprise much of Vermont’s landscape. As a result, the federal response has been sorely lacking in the wake of this disaster, despite advocacy from NOFA-VT, our federal delegation, and partners around the state. 

However, when tough times hit, the power of community heals. We are so grateful for YOUR SUPPORT. The incredible generosity and care you have demonstrated to your neighbors, friends, and total strangers during this crisis is humbling and shows our power when we come together. THANK YOU for the many ways you are showing up and supporting farmers and farmworkers in this tough time. We are all collaborators in building a thriving future. 

Updates on NOFA-VT’s Flood Response and Farmer Emergency Fund

Because of community support, NOFA-VT has been able to mount a robust response to support farmers across the state as they begin to recover from this summer’s extreme weather. Below, you’ll find some updates about our Farmer Emergency Fund and the many other ways we’re working to mitigate the immediate harms from this difficult season and advocate for longer-term systems change to make us more resilient in the face of future challenges.

Since 1997, NOFA-VT has organized the Farmer Emergency Fund, which supports farmers in challenging times by moving money directly from donors to farmers in need with no strings attached. When the floodwaters hit this summer, we put out the call for donations to this fund–  and you answered! 

The response from this wonderful community has been humbling and inspiring. You all have made a massive difference to farmers who otherwise have had little to no access to financial support. Thank you for showing up for those who keep us all fed.

To date, nearly 2,700 donors have made contributions to this fund. As of this writing on September 22, 2023, we have already awarded over $648,000 to 138 farms. More applications come in each day, and we are continuing to process them with the goal of sending out checks within a week of when the applications arrive. (Thank you to the farmer committee members who read those applications daily!) 

With your support, we are excited to share that we have raised $1.5 million to get out to farmers with Farmer Emergency Grants to weather this storm. This powerful generosity and reciprocity is an incredible testament to the strength of our relationships and our community strength. Thank you.  

We want to provide transparency around our use of these funds. We have been working to approve applications and get checks out to affected farms as fast as possible. We are receiving direction from our Board’s (majority farmer and farmworker) executive committee on how much of the fund to use and at which pace to ensure we use it all up and meet as many farms’ emerging needs as possible. Given the anticipated hay and livestock feed shortage, we are preparing for a second wave of applications this fall. Depending on this need, we will then assess whether we will be able to make a second round of grants. Finally, we plan to keep a small amount in reserve to give out for future emergencies that will inevitably arise, so we will likely retain a balance of between $50,000-$100,000. 

Due to the scale of need and the lack of meaningful federal and state relief, these Farmer Emergency grants are a very important lifeline for the many affected farmers and farms. We recognize that a $5,000 grant is small in the overall scope of loss many farmers have experienced. But it’s a short-term cash flow boost, which is helpful as farms evaluate their options and make a resilience plan. 

Beyond emergency grants, we are supporting our community in myriad other ways. Here are some examples of the additional work we have been doing since early July:

  • Working with farms one-on-one to provide personalized support related to the challenges they’re facing, for example, talking through cash flow considerations of crop, infrastructure, or market losses; connecting farmers with any additional support they may qualify for, and advising on alternative infrastructure, sales channels, and market opportunities that will help operations be more resilient in the future.

  • Supporting VOF-certified organic producers and processors by updating our forage guide to help producers find certified organic feed; accommodating requests to add land to producers' organic systems plans in an effort to make more organic feed available to organic livestock producers; and requesting (and receiving) approval for a temporary variance to the pasture rule for the 2023 season. This temporary variance provides important flexibility for organic livestock producers whose pastures were impacted by the flooding and continued rain.

  • Working with student clinicians at Vermont Law & Graduate School's Food & Agriculture Law Clinic to collect data on who is – and is not – currently served by federal disaster and crop insurance programs to inform ongoing advocacy for improved disaster assistance at the state and federal levels. 

  • Support affected Farm Share participants to ensure they do not bear further economic losses if their farm has to cancel the remainder of the CSA season or significantly reduce the number of products delivered to members due to the flooding and extreme rainfall. We have helped some people switch to other nearby CSAs where possible, and we have covered the costs of refunding participants for any prepaid portion of the season they could not receive. Inherent in the CSA model is the risk-sharing commitment that members make to their farmers, though we know many limited-income Vermonters are less able to absorb such losses and, especially in the wake of such a widespread disaster, must be able to repurpose their food budgets to continue meeting immediate needs.   

  • Working with farmers markets across the state to assess their needs in the aftermath of the flooding. Some markets sustained damage to physical infrastructure or equipment, and we are working with affected markets by providing small grants to support them with this recovery. However, markets across the state continue to experience significantly elevated demand for our Crop Cash program, which currently triples each dollar of 3SquaresVT/SNAP benefits at participating markets. Food insecurity remains elevated in our communities resulting from the ongoing impacts of the pandemic and now the flooding, and this program is an effective way to support both impacted eaters and farms with the same dollar.

We were also incredibly heartened to hear some success stories about how our work in non-emergency times has helped build farms’ resilience and ability to face emergencies when they do come.  

Why federal emergency farmer support programs aren’t working for Vermont farms

We have been advocating for emergency relief both within the state and federally. We’ve been regularly meeting with our federal delegation, the Farm Service Agency, and the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets to communicate farmers’ needs and push for support in the swiftest way possible. 

The mechanics of federal emergency programs meant for farms are built to support consolidated monocultures– not small-scale and diversified farms. We’ve seen from the State of Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Market’s “Loss & Damage Report” that over 70% of the farms that reported flooding loss and damage do not have crop or livestock insurance. Further, we have heard from farmers enrolled in these programs that the payouts they received paled compared to the losses they painstakingly documented and reported. 

Here is a real-life Vermont example of how this plays out for farmers who have tried to access federal aid. A farm that was dramatically impacted by the flooding, who has asked to remain anonymous, shared their story with us recently. One of the many crops they grow is strawberries; in a normal year, they anticipate about $15,000 of income from this crop. This year, they documented losses of $12,000 and filled out the complicated paperwork to apply for federal aid to provide retroactive insurance for this crop. They were eventually approved for aid, but the payment they received was only $380: 3% of their overall loss. Not only did the $380 not even cover their labor to document the loss and fill out the required paperwork, they were also not allowed to clean up their fields and replant until an inspector came out to see it themselves– a process that took several weeks and cost them precious time in the waning weeks of this tumultuous growing season. We’ve heard from some additional farms who were still waiting for these inspections well into September.  

We see example after example of situations like this playing out, where federal aid needs to be more adequate and attainable. While we are trying hard to fill in the gaps left by the lack of meaningful federal support, we see another equally important part of our role as highlighting these challenges in an effort to bring greater understanding among lawmakers as well as building political will to change these policies that prefer large-scale, industrial agriculture over appropriate scale, sustainable agriculture. In response, one of the projects we have been working on is creating a farmer sign-on letter that we have circulated around the northeast region calling on Congress to include key changes to crop insurance and disaster aid in the farm bill to ensure smaller-scale, more diversified producers have a stronger safety net in place next time a disaster hits. (Visit the NOFA-VT website for details). 

Erin Buckwalter is the NOFA-VT Development & Engagement Director.

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