Charlotte farmers closing out a brutal summer

Farmers in Charlotte had never seen a summer like 2023.

Vermont’s flooded river valleys made national headlines in the first half of July, but the rain didn’t stop after that. Fields far from the overflowing Lamoille or Winooski endured their own gradual inundation, one drop at a time. In southern Chittenden County, hilltop farms lost their crops, not all at once but day after day, as vegetables and berries turned to rot in the mud.

“You would look at the top of the carrot, and you would be like, ‘Well, that’s a big carrot,’” said Dave Quickel, the owner of Stony Loam Farm on Hinesburg Road. “You can sort of tell by the height of the greens. And then you pull it out of the ground and two thirds of it are just rotten.”

On Aug. 25, Quickel’s rain gauge had risen to 23.5 inches since June 12, when he’d last reset it. Summers in the area average fewer than four inches of precipitation per month.

Photo by Katie Rose Leonard. Rain in late July left the parking lot underwater and washed out part of the farm road at Katie Rose Leonard’s Head Over Fields. She lost some cucumbers to the May frost and she struggled to havest kale, arugula, cabbage, cilantro and dill because of the wet August. This has been the hardest year of her 10 years of farming in Charlotte.
Photo by Katie Rose Leonard
Rain in late July left the parking lot underwater and washed out part of the farm road at Katie Rose Leonard’s Head Over Fields. She lost some cucumbers to the May frost and she struggled to havest kale, arugula, cabbage, cilantro and dill because of the wet August. This has been the hardest year of her 10 years of farming in Charlotte.

“It’s unprecedented in my — what have I been farming now? Twenty-five years,” Quickel said. “I’ve never seen anything like this, where it was just so prolonged and it just stayed wet for such a long amount of time.”

Quickel remembers Hurricane Irene in 2011, but for him, this year has been worse.

“That was a different thing because it came in a couple of big shots. And that was its own set of problems for a short window, but then it cleared off again, and we got back to dry,” he recalled.

In excessively moist conditions, weeds thrive. This summer, Quickel watched as they crowded out his crops on land too soggy to accommodate mechanized methods of weed removal.

“We’re an organic farm, so we can’t just go out and spray herbicide,” Quickel noted. “And so, the crops that were out there and that were looking good slowly got overrun because we just don’t have the manpower to hand-weed everything.”

The bigger problem, though, was that, amid seemingly constant rain, Quickel didn’t have a chance to put many of his crops in the ground in the first place.

“It just never got to the point where we could consistently get a tractor in the field and get our tillage done to get things planted and seeded,” he lamented.

Quickel has used the eight greenhouses on his property to keep his CSA (community-supported agriculture) customers happy. Shielded from the weather, his tomatoes and peppers are “doing great.” Still, he has taken a major financial hit, particularly from the loss of his lettuces, and he doesn’t expect a potentially cooperative September or October to help much.

“We’re probably around 40 percent off of our last three-year average on-farm revenue,” he said. “There’s not going to be a comeback story on this one, I’m sad to say.”

The federal Farm Service Agency’s Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program exists to reimburse small farmers in the wake of natural disasters, but according to Quickel, Charlotte’s farmlands don’t qualify on the basis of the summer’s rainfall.

“People down in the Intervale, people in the river bottoms that lost everything, that went underwater — yeah, that’s catastrophic,” he said. “They’re going to get a payout, which is going to not cover what they would’ve normally done, but it’s certainly going to be helpful.”

“But when I called the Farm Service Agency and tried to have a conversation about this, there’s really nothing,” he continued. “If you didn’t go underwater by a flooding body of water, there’s not going to be any support.”

At Adam’s Berry Farm on Bingham Brook Road, Jessica Sanford hadn’t completely given up hope that help might arrive.

“I know Vermont Farm Fund has money for people. NOFA has money for people,” she observed, referring to the Northeast Organic Farming Association. “People are still working through numbers on how much was impacted by floods or heavy rains, and there’s still advocacy work being done to try to get some of those funds.”

Consumers, too, can potentially play a role.

“I think challenges like this get people talking about how they can support local farms. So, if we can raise awareness,” Sanford said, “that hopefully will have a lasting impact on getting people to shop at all the farmstands in Charlotte or join a CSA or look for local food in the marketplace.”

For Sanford, the trials of 2023 began before the rain did, with a late frost in May that claimed, by her estimate, 20 to 30 percent of her farm’s crop. Then came the wildfire smoke from Quebec, which reduced the available sunshine for her remaining berries and scared off pick-your-own customers.

During rainy periods, fruit “gets soft” and “starts to swell and crack,” as Sanford put it. Between storms, she and her employees rushed to get strawberries, raspberries and blueberries off their vines before they became waterlogged, but in many cases, their quality had already deteriorated.

What’s called “seconds,” slightly bruised, cosmetically flawed or otherwise “imperfect” fruits, can be used for value-added products.

“We do jams, popsicles, sorbets, frozen berries. We sell to breweries. We sell to other people that are making value-added products,” Sanford said. “Because we’ve been in business so long, we have a lot of those tools already in place, where we can just sort of jump into action.”

As Sanford sees it, farms can improve their resiliency in the face of difficult weather by planning ahead. “I think all farmers are working to prepare for climate change and what will be an increase in these climatic events, frequency and intensity,” she said.

“So, we’re adding high tunnels,” she went on. “We’re really paying attention to soil health. And then we’re making sure that, in dry years, we have enough watering capacity, so increasing our pond sizes, making sure that our irrigation systems are efficient. And we’re doing a lot in terms of field layout for drainage and airflow to help with drying out on these super wet and humid years.”

At Head Over Fields on Route 7, Katie Rose Leonard expressed gratitude for recent drainage improvements at the farmstand building that she’d bought in 2020. Rain in late July had left its parking lot underwater.

“It was the first capital investment that we made in our new land,” she said. “We’re very happy that we did that because it allowed our farmstand not to get flooded this year.”

The same rainstorm did, however, wash out a portion of the farm road at Head Over Fields.

“We’re going to need to rent an excavator and buy several truckloads of stone, so that’s certainly hard to swallow,” Leonard said.

Around the same time, Leonard’s crops — the ones outside her two high tunnels — began to show signs of distress. After losing some cucumbers to the May frost, she struggled in the wetness of August to produce kale, arugula, cabbage, cilantro and dill.

“There were 6 inches of water in some of our fields,” she said. “This is my 10th growing season, so I have not been farming for that long, but of my 10 years, this is the hardest one.”

On the bright side, Leonard mentioned that 2023 has been “a great year for alliums” like garlic and onion. And she emphasized that her farmstand still has summer vegetables like peppers, eggplants and cucumbers for sale.

“It’s just the yields aren’t quite what they usually are,” she said. “If we can, and we need to, we’re buying from great local farms nearby and selling their greens to supplement our vegetables.”

Leonard also voiced optimism about the coming autumn. “Things like carrots and beets and radishes and turnips should be back in abundance this fall, as well as all of our salad greens,” she predicted.

Beyond that, the future seems less certain.

“The farmer in me wants to believe that there’s something about this year that’s cyclical and that it’s not the new norm. But it certainly feels like each year it’s getting harder to grow organic food,” Leonard said.

Fruit and vegetable growers aren’t the only ones struggling. Ben Miner, who produces horse hay on Burritt Road, near the border of Charlotte and Hinesburg, has collected, by his count, only about 4,000 bales so far this summer, compared to 35,000 or 40,000 in a normal year.

“It’s dry, small, square bales,” he described, “which requires dry weather, which we haven’t had very much of.”

Miner also buys and resells hay from other producers in the Northeast. When his own crop previously struggled, as it did in 2021, he easily tracked down nearby sellers willing to supply Chittenden County’s horse farms at reasonable prices.

But this time, widespread bad weather has yielded a bigger shortage. Miner has had to drive up to five hours away to make purchases. The extra hauling distance adds to the cost.

“It’s all the way through New York to Ohio, New Hampshire, parts of Massachusetts, Maine, southern Quebec. Not many farmers were able to make any hay in July,” Miner said.

As Miner sees it, if he doesn’t find enough hay elsewhere this fall, his own business won’t be the only victim.

“These people who have horses, they need to feed their horses,” he pointed out. “It’s not like a beef cow or a dairy herd, where you can just cull off your herd and trim their numbers down and make it work. These animals are people’s pets and their pride and joy and their best friends.”

Miner comes from a family of farmers. He knows 2023 isn’t the first tough year Vermonters have experienced.

“I just think of all the struggles that my great-grandfather and grandfather and dad went through. They had struggles, and they just kept on keeping on,” he said.

Still, Miner sees that things are changing.

“Just to give you an example, my grandfather made dry hay for his dairy herd. He had very basic haymaking equipment. I have state-of-the-art haying equipment, more equipment, more tractors, and I have a harder time making dry hay than he did. And it’s due to just more moisture,” he said. “When it does rain, it rains more. So, it feels like our weather is getting worse.”