ST. ALBANS, Vt. — Farmers throughout New England and the Northeast are dealing with a second consecutive fall of winter weather, but in Vermont — a small state where much of the economy is land-reliant — cold, wet and icy conditions are taking their toll on agriculture.
The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets is calling the past year “a historic and unrelenting weather crisis for Vermont farmers,” with an additional 10 inches of precipitation in 2019 — a 28% increase over the previous 365-day historic average.
Farmers had snow-covered ground that did not thaw from November 2018 to May 2019; then they were hit with a late spring that never quite dried. Crops were planted late this year, and fall rains have resulted in record flooding.
Now, for a second unprecedented year in a row, an early winter and persistent snow are “creating a weather crisis for farming in Vermont,” the VAAFM has said.
By the end of this calendar year, Vermont farmers will have dealt with seven months of winter weather conditions — January through May, and November and December.
So far, the Farmers’ Almanac has been spot on with its predictions for New England this fall: “very unsettled” for Halloween; rapid temperature changes with intensifying storms from Nov. 8-11; a storm along the East Coast during Thanksgiving week that will hamper the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; and a coastal storm along the Atlantic Seaboard between Dec. 4 and 7. Next up: rain and snow at Christmas, according to the almanac.
“The severe weather cycle has been with farmers for more than a year,” Vermont Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts said via email earlier this week. “It began last November and really has not let up with early snow, rain, ice, more rain and a short growing season. But farmers are adapting and doing the best they can under relentless weather challenges.
“It’s hard to put a dollar figure on this, but without a doubt some farmers are facing economic challenges because of the severe weather Vermont has had over the past year.”
In late November, the VAAFM gave an exemption to farmers for spreading manure on snow-covered grounds until Dec. 15, when the state’s manure-spreading ban takes effect.
The state’s Required Agricultural Practices, which are geared toward water quality, typically prohibit farmers from spreading on fields with standing water, ice or snow. However, farmers started having problems with surplus manure once winter hit early again this year, so Tebbetts signed the notice of exemption.
Farmers still have to comply with certain conditions under the exemption.
“We needed to take this action because we did not want farmers facing even a more difficult situation in late winter and early spring,” Tebbetts said. “We do not want pits to overflow in the middle of the winter and risk discharges. We tried to apply common sense and worked closely with farmers on managing the crisis. The staff worked day and night trying to mitigate difficult situations.”
Scott Magnan is a crop farmer in Richmond. He plants sunflowers, corn and hay. He performs custom and precision agriculture work in spreading manure and planting corn.
When winter hit in November this year, Magnan received a “spillover of calls from farmers who were struggling to get everything they could on the ground.” He had to rent an extra spreading tank.
“Before the state acted, there was basically a 20-day window where no one could spread, and that’s a long time,” Magnan said. “I think the state had to do something.”
Trouble started brewing this fall when a bomb cyclone hit New England and New York, leaving 600,000 utility customers without power; 20,000 of them were in Vermont — a state with about 500,000 people.
Then, a Halloween rainstorm produced record-breaking rainfalls — anywhere from 2-5 inches across various regions of Vermont. Damaging floods resulted. The power went out again, and roads were washed out.
In Richmond, after the storm, Bruce Hennessey lost all 2,000 of his pasture-fed turkey and chickens at Maple Wind Farm after he found them drowning in 4 feet of water — just before Thanksgiving month.
The Hennesseys had moved their animals to higher ground, anticipating rain, but they did not expect the torrential downpours that followed.
Magnan said the Halloween rainstorm caused several delays in his work.
“It basically shut us down,” he said.
Hemp farmers also had to scramble during this fall harvest in Vermont.
“It was a rush for many to get the crop harvested and dried,” Tebbetts said. “Big rain events like we had this fall can make it more difficult to get the hemp out of the fields. There was tremendous energy around this new crop this year in Vermont, so we are hoping farmers were able to get most of the hemp harvested and dried. We should know more later this winter, when surveys come back from the field.”
One Franklin County farmer said the Halloween storm produced the the worst flooding he had seen in 30 years. The state is receiving $500,000 in federal aid, but most of that funding will likely be dedicated to public infrastructure.
“It’s unlikely farmers will receive this federal funding,” Tebbetts said. “It’s important that farmers reach out to the FSA because they may have funding options for farmers.”
Magnan grew up on a family farm in St. Albans. His parents, John and Elaine, typically milked 50 to 60 cows but sold their herd in the late 1990s.
Magnan said he remembers working in severe weather on the farm — especially mud — and that dealing with weather has always been part of farming.
The difference in modern weather, he said, is that storms seem more intense and frequent.
“We definitely have some higher extremes,” Magnan said. “It’s been challenging. I won’t say it’s been impossible. It’s kept us on our toes, though.”