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Vermont Farmers Hang Tough After Near-Record Rainy Season

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VERMONT - At the end of December, the fields in the Intervale look barren, gray and desolate, giving a misleading conception for this low-lying floodplain along the Winooski River, one of Chittenden County's most fertile growing areas. But just as Mother Nature gives, she also takes away - and this past spring, her timing couldn't have been worse.

As Seven Days reported in June ["Flood Waters Recede, But Crop Losses Remain," June 7], farmers throughout Vermont suffered through the soggiest May on record, with some Intervale farmers canoeing over their newly planted crops. For many, the flood effectively set their planting season back to square one and took a sizeable chomp out of their net profits for the year. Statewide, farmers then struggled through a wetter-than-normal summer and fall, and had continuous trouble drying out crops, plowing fields and cutting hay. Chittenden and Franklin counties took some of the hardest hits, according to the U.S Department of Agriculture.

But for dairy farms and livestock growers, the sharpest sting may be yet to come. With much of the state's corn crop damaged - more than 1000 acres in Chittenden County alone - feed prices are high across the board. According to House Agriculture Committee Chair David Zuckerman (P-Burlington), feed and seed dealers are reporting more than $100 million in accounts receivable owed by farmers, an enormous figure for a state this size and "many times" higher than normal.

"For many farms, they're not going out of business because they can't afford to pay off their debt if they do," says Zuckerman. "That's a pretty frightening scenario."

Zuckerman's own Full Moon Farm in the Intervale flooded chest-deep in some fields, knocking about 50 percent off his net profits for the year. But the legislator-farmer says he feels luckier than most to be "in the black" for the year.

In the coming weeks, the legislature and the governor will be working to scrounge up some $8.6 million in direct cash payments for Vermont's dairy farmers, who are enduring the lowest prices for milk in decades. In fact, Vermont farmers are now being paid the exact same price for their milk, unadjusted for inflation, as they were getting 25 years ago.

Moreover, relief from the feds won't come soon enough. Though the state's $8.6 million in aid is "more than a drop in the bucket," Zuckerman says it will barely make a dent in $50 million to $100 million that's needed. A $54 million package of direct cash relief passed the U.S. Senate earlier this year, but the measure failed in the House and won't likely come up again before spring.

There is some good news on the local ag front: All the Intervale farms survived the year. One incubator farm - Spencer Blackwell and Jennifer Woodworth's Intervale Bean and Grain Farm - are moving on to greener pastures in East Middlebury.

» Read the full list of 2006 news updates.

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