At Dog River Farm in Berlin, a One-Day Flood Wipes Out a Season’s Labor | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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At Dog River Farm in Berlin, a One-Day Flood Wipes Out a Season’s Labor

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Published July 19, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.


Cucumbers in the mud at Dog River Farm - CAROLYN SHAPIRO
  • Carolyn Shapiro
  • Cucumbers in the mud at Dog River Farm

George Gross plucked a perfect-looking cucumber from a mud-caked plant and shook his head. He can't sell that cucumber or any other growing at Dog River Farm. When the floodwaters of the river receded from his fields in Berlin last week, they left deep-green cucumbers and hundreds of other vegetables intact but potentially contaminated. He must discard them all.

"You have no idea what this feels like for me," Gross said, his sun-reddened face taut and his voice tight with frustration as he gazed across his fields. "It is heartbreaking, because our stuff looked so good and because we were that close — that close — to having a banner season."

Gross, wearing a trucker cap and jeans and sneakers dusted with dirt, steered his ATV through puddles and patches of silt and exposed rock where 12-inch-tall peppers had flourished in four feet of fresh topsoil. Between sludgy rows of cucumber and squash plants, he crouched to gently wipe off leaves that need exposure for photosynthesis — though they might end up in the trash.

The picturesque Dog River runs along the farm's eastern edge, keeping the fields fertile and well drained. But when a slow-moving storm on July 10 dumped torrents of rain on central Vermont, the river jumped its banks and swallowed the fields where he grows organic fruits and vegetables for the Whole Foods Market chain, local grocers, Vermont restaurants and customers who visit his farmstand. In a single day, Gross lost 90 percent of his crops: acres of cucumbers, jalapeños, fennel, squash, salad greens and kale — and the hundreds of thousands of dollars of income they represented.

For Gross and other vegetable farmers, the mid-season timing of the flood was disastrous. Months before, he had exhausted his line of credit for about $100,000 in up-front costs — equipment, fuel, planting supplies, shipping materials and labor. His five employees from the island of Jamaica and a local farmhand started work in late April, earning about $22 per hour in wages and housing, which amounts to a payroll of about $5,000 per week.

Normally, that expense would bear fruit from July to September. After shipping orders to customers, he'd cover the debt and make a small profit to pay himself and invest in the business.

Instead, after ordering packaging to ship his products, "I'm sitting on $20,000 in boxes that I won't be able to fill," Gross said with a combination of candor and resignation.

Dog River Farm is just one corner of Vermont's agricultural economy that was trounced by last week's flooding. Gross' close friend Tony Lehouillier, of Foote Brook Farm in Johnson, watched his entire operation — machinery, barns and all — go underwater. Produce fields in Burlington's Intervale, including those of Pitchfork Farm and Diggers' Mirth Collective Farm, turned into lakes that helpless growers had to navigate in canoes.

"The scope of the loss is extremely profound," said Grace Oedel, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. The trade group has collected post-flood surveys from dozens of farms that reported losses of 75 to 100 percent this season, she said. "It's really hard to overstate."

It's too soon to calculate the full extent of farm flood damage across Vermont, said John Roberts, state executive director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency, during an online media briefing on Monday. He encouraged farmers to report their damage to the state FSA as soon as possible.

"Many farmers have not had time or mental capacity to call their FSA office, but the sooner the better," Roberts said. "What we're looking at across the counties is several thousand acres so far, potatoes, corn. There has been some livestock loss, particularly chickens."

He added, "I had a call from a honey producer on the Black River whose hives were swept away, and we will be working with him to help him."

Workers in a kale field - CAROLYN SHAPIRO
  • Carolyn Shapiro
  • Workers in a kale field

Gross, 51, farms 40 acres along Route 12, three miles south of Montpelier. He and his workers had started to harvest the crop of cucumbers and fennel for Whole Foods the weekend before the flood, knowing that heavy rains were predicted. But they didn't expect the deluge that dumped up to nine inches of water on central Vermont. When the crew got to the field that day, it realized it would have to race the river.

"The water was rising," Gross said. "We're cutting as quick as we can."

Just before noon, the river burst through the trees along the eastern edge of the farm fields. The torrent knocked down cornstalks, took out a huge patch of pumpkins, submerged the acorn squash and swept away 10,000 jalapeño plants. Rows of fennel went under, sinking $8,000 worth of orders.

Asparagus plants, half an acre of parsley and one section of sweet corn survived on a slightly higher elevation, which kept the floodwaters at bay.

The river spilled into the basements of three apartments where the Jamaican workers live. Gross had to replace their hot water heaters and order a second dehumidifier from Amazon.

In his fields, Gross found fish in the puddles left after the storm. He had to discard a greenhouse's worth of lettuces and spinach grown for Sarducci's salads because the popular Montpelier restaurant had to close after the flooding, and the greens wouldn't last. By week's end, a huge, sandy sinkhole occupied the middle of his fennel and cucumber fields. Mud and sand covered most of the remaining plants. When Gross yanked up one of many wasted fennel bulbs and brushed off the dirt, its strong licorice scent wafted through the humid air.

The flood carried much of the farm's topsoil to a field where 700-foot rows of kale plants were almost ready to harvest and pack into 5,000 cases at $30 each. Last Friday, the Dog River Farm crew was painstakingly removing the silt-coated bottom leaves near the ground. The top of the plants sprouted clean and verdant.

It's unclear whether Gross can salvage the kale or crops such as acorn squash that had not yet fruited. Federal rules say if the edible portion of a plant has come in contact with floodwaters, farmers must discard it. It is considered unfit for human consumption, potentially tainted by sewage, chemicals, heavy metals or pathogens.

Dog River Farm stopped carrying crop insurance in 2019, Gross said. By his calculations, the annual cost of $8,000 didn't justify the potential reimbursement he'd receive in a claim, he said.

He and other farmers could see some financial relief from a U.S. Department of Agriculture disaster designation, which would release additional federal aid, and other programs providing assistance for flood-related farm losses. Gross said he plans to pursue those options but has to figure out the eligibility rules for each program, the information he has to compile and the amount he can recover.

Oedel, the NOFA-VT director, suggested farmers should temper their expectations. "My guess is they still won't come out whole," she said.

Vermont has some smaller-scale disaster-assistance programs that could help, as well. They include NOFA-VT's Farmer Emergency Fund, which received $70,000 in individual donations in the days after the flood. Oedel said she expects that the fund will need to raise $500,000 to assist in recovery at flood-ravaged farms. The Center for an Agricultural Economy in Hardwick offers no-interest loans through the Vermont Farm Fund. Each individual loan is limited to $10,000, but the center usually can cover up to $900,000 in projects each year, according to executive director Jon Ramsay.

"We are able to get these smaller amounts of money out through the farm fund very, very quickly," he said.

At Dog River Farm, Gross also needs to determine how soon he can replant. The certified organic operation would normally have to wait 90 to 120 days before replanting.

He planned to make a case to state agriculture officials for regrowing right away, "because I've got wagons full of plants that can go in the ground," he said. "Our third round of corn is sitting on wagons over there. It was about to be transplanted."

George Gross - CAROLYN SHAPIRO
  • Carolyn Shapiro
  • George Gross

Two more batches of cucumbers, which he grows in succession, would be ready to harvest in 55 days if they were planted now. As part of his energy-efficient, pesticide-free practices, Gross lays plastic sheeting on his fields to maintain soil moisture and curtail weeds, and that plastic also would protect the fruit from touching the soil, he pointed out.

Another headache: Gross was supposed to pay his workers last Friday, but his payroll office in Montpelier was closed due to flooding. "So now I have to write them personal checks, which will drain my bank account," he said with a wry chuckle. "It's like one thing after another."

Gross started farming in Johnson in 1993 and cofounded Deep Root Organic Co-op with Lehouillier and other growers to share distribution costs. Then he became a high school biology teacher in New Jersey, coming up on weekends to work the fields. In 2001, while he was still teaching, he purchased Dog River Farm and continued as a weekend farmer until he moved to Vermont to farm full time three years later. He and his wife and their two children live in a farmhouse on a hill overlooking a patch of unscathed blueberry bushes and the farmstand on their side of Route 12; the river's-edge vegetable fields are across the road.

Gross' wife works as the director of sales for Caledonia Spirits distillers in Montpelier. Even with that income, he has concerns about maintaining the farm, he said. This year, he'll have to channel more fruits and vegetables into the farmstand — where he gets top dollar on each item with retail prices. With fewer pumpkins to fill his jack-o'-lantern bins, he'll have to make up the difference with more of the Christmas trees he grows.

He might sell $1,000 gift cards that customers could redeem at the farmstand over a few years for Vermont products including meats, coffee, milk and cheese, as well as his own strawberries, Swiss chard and tomatoes. Regular customers would likely spend that much anyway, he reasoned, and he'd get the money for expenses now.

Many of those regulars stopped by last week to check on Gross and offer to help.

"How bad was it for you?" Deborah Messing asked as she arrived at the farmstand with her husband, Bob.

"Probably 90 percent loss," Gross said. The Messings had held a corn roast in 2017 to celebrate their 50th anniversary with produce from Dog River Farm. They had also crafted bouquets of blooms from the farm's pick-your-own flower field, which Gross's wife tended before it was submerged.

"We'll have corn," Gross promised the Messings. "It's not over."

Four days after the flood, Gross sat outside this farmstand and outlined his plans: He'd run a chisel plow to pop up the soil, let it air out. He'd get his corn in the ground and prepare as many fields as he could for new crops, including beets and Brussels sprouts.

He'd hope for dry, sunny days — and keep farming.

How to Help

VT Flood Response & Recovery Fund 2023: vtfloodresponse.org

Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont Farmer Emergency Fund: nofavt.org/farmer-emergency-fund

Intervale Center Recovery Fund: intervale.org/donate

Center for an Agricultural Economy Vermont Farm Fund: hardwickagriculture.org/farmers-food-businesses/vermont-farm-fund

The original print version of this article was headlined "A Harvest of Mud | At Dog River Farm in Berlin, a one-day flood wipes out a season's labor"

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