Farmers’ determination, community and government support credited with survival of farms after Irene

Stuart Comstock-Gay, President and CEO of the Vermont Farm Disaster Relief Fund, commended the outporing of support for Vermont farms after Tropical Storm Irene. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs

Stuart Comstock-Gay, president and CEO of the Vermont Farm Disaster Relief Fund, commended the outpouring of support for Vermont farms after Tropical Storm Irene at a press conference at the Settlement Farm in Middlesex Wednesday. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs

Despite losing thousands of acres of farmland in Tropical Storm Irene, Vermont hasn’t lost a single farm due to the storm that rocked the state last fall, officials say.

Gov. Peter Shumlin gathered at the Settlement Farm in Middlesex Wednesday with his secretary of Agriculture and others to congratulate farmers and aid workers.

The Vermont Farm Disaster Relief Fund, headed up by Stuart Comstock-Gay, is a private fund developed to help farmers in the aftermath of Irene’s devastation. The fund has paid out $1.9 million to 198 farmers so far. Next Monday is the application deadline for the fund’s sixth round of grants to Vermont farmers affected by Irene.

Comstock-Gay said he was inspired not only by the determination of the state’s farmers, but the outpouring of philanthropic support from the community.

“All over the place, Vermont agriculture speaks to people. It speaks to our economy and it speaks to who we are as a people,” he said.

Along with the private help, farmers in Vermont also were assisted by the USDA, which has eight initiatives in place to help farmers hit by such disasters. The federal department has paid out $7.4 million in Irene-related assistance, said the Vermont executive director of USDA Farm Service Agency, Robert Paquin.

The agency’s biggest payouts have been to farmers who lost crops or land. All together, Vermont farmers suffered 26,000 acres of damaged crops or farmland. Some 192 claims on crop insurance totaled $6.5 million in payouts in Vermont.

Paquin said that because the USDA is not a first responder in crisis situations, the Vermont Farm Disaster Relief Fund helped fill some vital gaps. Then his agency came into play.

The goal, he said, is finding the people who still need help and then remedying their problems.

“Trying to get to zero is the whole idea,” Paquin said, “trying to figure out how we don’t let any farm fall through the cracks.”

No farm has gone under, according to Shumlin. The farms hurt by Irene are all still in operation, but he emphasized there is more to be done.

“We stand here almost a year after Irene, really with a single purpose. I made the promise as governor and we as Vermonters made the promise that we weren’t going to show up, send our condolences and walk away. I gotta tell you than in natural disasters of this magnitude, that’s not an unusual approach from government,” Shumlin said.

Chuck Ross, the governor’s secretary of Agriculture, maintained that just because farms are operating doesn’t mean they’re on solid ground.

“Just because things are green from the roadside doesn’t mean things are perfect on the farm, and I can’t underscore that enough,” Ross said.

Taylor Dobbs

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  • James Maroney

    Tropical Storm Irene is said here to have cost Vermont farmers either $6.5M or $7.4M; it is not clear whether state and federal relief programs address the same loses or different loses. Either way, TSI is just one bad day compared to the loss that Vermont dairy farmers will endure this year due to federal farm policy. The Federal Milk Marketing Order pricing system encourages, let’s say forces, Vermont dairy farmers to over supply their markets which drives milk prices below the average Vermont dairy farmer’s cost of production. That is why they are going out of business. This year, the policy will pay farmers in Vermont $16-17/cwt, which is $5/cwt below the average farmer’s cost. Since our dairy farmers produce 2.6B lbs of milk or 26M cwts, the Vermont industry is on track to lose $130M as a result of the policy. Governor Shumlin and Secretary Ross crow about giving them $5-6M in the face of this staggering loss but the Vermont dairy industry has not recovered from the disaster of 2009-10, when they traded what little equity they had left for cash to pay their bills, to stay in business one more year hoping for a better tomorrow. Tomorrow has arrived and nothing has changed. They have nothing left to pledge. The industry is about to show Mr. Shumlin and Mr Ross that $5-6M is a patch on their problems and how little prepared the state is to do anything meaningful to save them.

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