Outside Dog River Farm recently, five pallets of bright orange pumpkins rested roadside in a loose grid along the grass, far fewer than owner George Gross would have normally had for sale. The summer floods wiped away a dozen acres of his crops, he said, and those few pumpkins outside his farm store were the only ones left.
“This is probably the worst summer growing season I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Gross, a farmer for more than 30 years.
The state launched a grant program in early August to help businesses after the flooding. But months later, fewer than one-fifth of agricultural business applicants had received payments — and those that did, on average, received tens of thousands of dollars less than needed.
Of 41 approved applications, only 28 agricultural businesses had gotten paid as of Oct. 4, according to data from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.
That was out of 147 agricultural business applications total, according to the data, sent to Community News Service by agency Secretary Anson Tebbetts.
Combined, the applicants had net damages of about $13.2 million, according to the data, averaging out to about $89,600 per applicant.
But the average grant award as of Oct. 4 was just $14,193, Tebbetts said.
“We totally understand that this program is not going to meet the needs of all the losses that are out there, that the losses that our farmers have faced are catastrophic in many cases,” said Tebbetts in an Oct. 4 interview.
“We continue to have a long way to go,” Tebbetts said, explaining that his agency has recently taken on new reviewers to go through applications.
Gross, the Berlin farmer, said late last month he had applied for federal funds and for money from the state grant program — the Business Emergency Gap Assistance Program.
Had he received anything? “Zippo,” he said.
Farmers like him across the state seem frustrated the government isn’t supporting its local food producers.
“How do we back up the ecological and cultural value that we put into agriculture in our state?” asked Mandy Fischer, program director at the Intervale Center in Burlington, a collective of farms and community gardens. “There’s not going to be any farmers left if we don’t figure out how to do that, not just as a state but as a region, as a country.”
Instead, local farms are turning to their communities to help lighten the financial burden.
The Vermont Farm Fund, a project of the Northeast Kingdom–based Center for an Agricultural Economy, offers an emergency loan to people whose farms or farming careers have been jeopardized due to an unexpected natural disaster, like the floods.
The loans have no interest rate for up to $15,000, payable over 36 or 48 months, with the ability to defer payments for up to 12 months.
“The flood only compounded what was already a really hard growing season,” said John Ramsey, the Hardwick center’s executive director.
The fund has been helping farmers since Hurricane Irene. It’s an example of how farmers and their advocates want to become more self-sufficient in the midst of what they consider incomplete resources from the state and federal governments.
The state grant program launched Aug. 3 to help businesses with damages not already covered by insurance, donations or other grants.
For businesses with less than $1 million in physical damages, the program originally covered 20 percent, and it would only pay up to $20,000. On Sept. 20, officials got rid of the $20,000 max and raised the percentage covered to 30 percent for businesses with less than $1 million in physical damages.
For businesses with higher damages, the state would cover 20 percent with a $500,000 max.
Eligible businesses that applied before Sept. 20 should still receive the 30 percent coverage, officials said. Those eligible that have already received funding should receive an additional check in the mail.
Fischer, Gross and Ramsey all said the floods this summer came at an especially disastrous time for farmers, who after a season of prep and growing were getting ready to see their crops turn a profit.
Throughout May farmers dealt with abnormally hot and dry conditions, followed by an unexpected freeze late that month, then weeks of heavy rainfall. The results: saturated soils and flooded fields.
“We (only) got one-twentieth of our crop,” said Gross. “I’m looking at $25,000 just in repairs.”
Growers at the Intervale Center along the Winooski River are “anticipating about a 50 percent reduction in yields across the board,” said Fischer, the center’s program director.
Many farmers there struggled after the floods to pay their bills and put food on the table, even after receiving grant money from the state, Fischer said.
“Immediate cash is really critical in terms of resilience,” she said.
Gross has seen more financial support from his local community than from any state program. “I have a really great customer base, I always have,” he said. “All summer long this place would be busy all day long. They want to see me continue.”
Digger’s Mirth, one of the farms at the Intervale, was able to raise $68,000 through a GoFundMe campaign.
At least 15 farms have gotten help from the Vermont Farm Fund, said Ramsey, who along with his work at the center owns Sawmill Brook Farm in Greensboro.
“I believe that we’ve deployed $220,000 in emergency flood relief funds since the flood in July,” he said late last month.
Standing outside the store that sits on his farm, Gross seemed optimistic about the fall growing season and the crops he has, despite the challenges he’s faced since summer. Across the farm he and workers have been picking kale, he said.
“Things are rolling, and we’re harvesting all these wonderful things,” Gross said. “Markets are strong, you know.”
He hoped the next few weeks would stay like that.
(The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.)