Farmers grappling with Irene even a year later

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By GEORGE M. WALSH and LISA RATHKE, Associated Press

WAITSFIELD, Vt. (AP) — A year after Hurricane Irene swept away topsoil and crops and replaced them with rocks and contaminants, farmers from North Carolina to Vermont are rebounding but still grappling with the aftermath — on top of an early spring followed by cold snaps, a dry summer and an anticipated spike in feed costs caused by the Midwestern drought.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture paid farmers $78.6 million for insurance claims covering about 225,000 acres of Irene-damaged farmland in nine Northeastern states through its Risk Management Agency. Not all farmers buy crop insurance, so the figure isn't a complete measure of the devastation.

More than half the damaged land was in New York, where two crop-growing regions — the Hudson and Schoharie valleys — were hit especially hard. Irene's raging waters rearranged the landscape, onto farm fields in many places, and floodwaters carrying spilled fuel and refuse eventually settled into the ground.

The floodwaters last Aug. 28 swept away 128 bales of dairy farmer Doug Turner's hay to feed his 45 cows in Waitsfield and contaminated a third of his corn crop. He had to mow it down after it turned brown and moldy, then buy hay, and is still catching up from the feed loss.

"You can plow and scrape and bucket as much sand as you want; there's still an effect on the plant life. And there will be until I actually plow those fields under and turn up soil again, to kind of reincorporate it," Turner said.

But his biggest concern is how he will finish rebuilding the banks of the Mad River, which raged last August, carrying away the rocks and trees that stabilized the banks and damaged 30 acres of his land, he said.

He has had about half the riverbank work done — but he said he needs $50,000 to $70,000 to fix the remainder. He has already received more than $50,000 in help from various Vermont groups that raised money to help farmers, and he plans to apply for more because he can't afford to make payments on a loan.

"I'm worried about that next flood that comes a foot over the top of the bank," he said. "That's the one that's going to hurt me, and it's going to hurt me severely."

He knows of one farm in his area that sold its herd after the storm damage and a drop in milk prices this winter, he said.

Sandie Prokop, of Crossbrook Farm in New York's Schoharie Valley, lost 230 acres of feed corn and soybeans and 80 acres of hay, along with 14 acres of land for crops that became filled with rocks, some the size of dining room tables.

"We're back. It's still tremendous cash flow pressure," he said. "We had no feed inventory to carry over — feed was tight."

The drought has ravaged corn crops in parts of the Midwest, driving up the price of grain feed.

In Pinetops, N.C., Gwen and Bert Pitt's farm took a hit from winds that battered their 120 acres of tobacco just at the start of the harvest. There was nothing for them to do but plow it under and wait out the process of getting some money back through their federal crop insurance.

But that wasn't until March, past the ideal time in late February for starting tobacco seeds in greenhouses.

"We went and put it in because we had people who believed in us," Gwen Pitt said of the fertilizer and seed companies willing to help before the insurance money came in.

This, too, has been a tough year, she said. June windstorms tumbled the tobacco plants, requiring a crew to hand-pick leaves where the harvester wouldn't work amid the tangle.

The Pitts are also recovering from heavy damage to their cotton and soybean crops from Irene, both stunted by the heavy rains.

"It's been a challenging couple of years," Gwen Pitt said. "Mother Nature has the last word."

Still, many farmers are optimistic about this fall's harvest.

"I'm sure a lot of farmers got left very shortchanged for last year, but because of their resilience they started over," said Paul Hlubik, state executive director of the Farm Service Agency in New Jersey, where some growers had to scout damage in row boats, especially after the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee hit shortly after Irene.

"We started out as a tough year with the cold spring and excessive warmth, but you know the rains have been timely lately with things."

Vegetable farmers Ryan Wood Beauchamp and Kara Fitzgerald, both 27, are among those trying to start over — after Irene scoured 6 acres of their 10-acre Evening Song Farm in Shrewsbury, Vt., down to the bedrock.

They are now growing 4 acres of vegetables on land they're renting from a friend and intend to buy.

"It's literally what we put all of our energy into leading up to that point," Fitzgerald said. "And it's pretty overwhelming to violently lose the thing that you put all your energy into."

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Walsh reported from Albany, N.Y. Associated Press reporter Michael Hill in Albany contributed to this report.

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