Just after sunrise, less than 24 hours after Tropical Storm Irene barreled down on Vermont, Intervale farmers were out in the fields racing to save their crops. With plastic totes and wooden bins in hand, the farmers and a number of volunteers harvested what was left to harvest before the water from the nearby river and surrounding wetlands submerged their fields.
They ran through rows of cabbage, ripping them from the ground and tossing them into huge boxes on the back of a rumbling tractor. They sliced off the tops of kale plants, working double time to salvage the produce ahead of the rising waters. And they plucked nearly ripe tomatoes from weather-beaten vines.
It's a familiar story for Intervale farmers, who live with the understanding that flooding is a possibility, and often an inevitability. For as long as there have been farms in the fertile floodplain, which skirts the Winooski River, farmers have had to deal with flooded fields and destroyed crops. But this time felt worse. This time the downgraded Irene took no notice of the fact that many farmers were still recovering from the spring's devastating rains, which caused many of them to lose early plantings and set them back weeks. Like an unsportsmanlike competitor, Irene hit them when they were struggling to get up.
For Hilary Martin of Diggers' Mirth Collective Farm, the potential loss is painful in the wake of the destruction from the spring flooding. "We're really just starting to break even. We're still paying back the loans, so the fact that we can't sell a lot of this stuff means we won't necessarily be able to absorb this," she said Monday morning as she picked delicata squash from her sodden fields. By 11 a.m., she predicted, the field would be underwater and then nothing could be saved.
Preparations for the potential damage that Irene could bring began on Friday for most of the Intervale's 12 farms. Intervale Community Farm harvested boxes upon boxes of onions on Friday and Saturday in anticipation of the flooding, said farm employee Jessica Sanford. Martin and her crew were able to harvest the beets and one bed of carrots that were ready to come out of the ground on Saturday. On Monday, everything that was ready to be picked was, with priority given to the fields closest to the waterline.
At ICF, Monday began with farmers harvesting spinach from close to the water's edge. It wasn't yet submerged — because of health concerns, no produce that has come in contact with flood water may be sold — and they got to it just in time. They were not so lucky with their pumpkins and much of their squash, which are closest to the riverbank. By 8 a.m., the water in those fields was knee-height and the pumpkins, squash and a few rogue cantaloupes were floating in the murky depths.
As the water rose rapidly, Andy Jones and his crew at ICF dashed up and down rows of cabbage before moving on to the broccoli. They got what produce they could, though not everything made it out of the fields. "It's not sort of a race. It's an actual race," Jones said as he hopped on a tractor to take the box of cabbage to higher ground. "I think [the water is] moving faster than I've seen it move. At 6:45 a.m., one of those fields wasn't flooded and now it is" just an hour and a half later, he said.
"It's a little frantic," said Sanford, dressed in waders, lopping off the tops of kale as she moved swiftly through the rows.
None of the farmers could yet tell what the impact of Irene might be. But what they do know is much has already been lost. Rachel Schattman, who runs Bella Farm, grows culinary herbs, leeks, scallions and garlic, all of which are likely to be destroyed due to the flooding. She called her fields "toast." Despite the loss, she seemed remarkably placid. "It's fine. It's expected," she said. Still the fact that there is nothing to be done doesn't make the damage sting any less.
By the end of Monday, Martin expects that all the Digger's Mirth fields will be under water. Indeed, part of the road that runs through the agricultural lands was already nearly impassable due to rushing waters. The best Martin could do was pull up produce that could be stored, as well as stuff like edamame, mesclun, cilantro, peppers and watermelon that were just about ready to be harvested. Still, she said, they won't be able to sell much of their non-storage crops for a month.
Like Schattman, Martin seemed at peace with the frenzied emergency harvest. There was no point getting worked up because there was nothing to be done about the storm. There was only the work at hand.
"We're getting so frigging used to it," Martin said.