Business & Economy

Farmers eligible for aid following drought-related disaster declarations

Winooski River in Montpelier
Drought conditions this summer have led to low water levels in the Winooski River, seen here in Montpelier in August. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Vermont farmers whose production has suffered because of summer and fall drought conditions can now apply for relief. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) declared drought-related natural disaster conditions in 10 primary counties and all neighboring counties on Wednesday, accounting for the entire state. The designation opens the door to federal emergency relief for the state’s producers, who can apply for emergency loans until July 2021. 

“There have been crop losses, and there have been expenses incurred to not only port in water, to irrigate and feed livestock, but also folks are drilling wells,” said Scott Waterman, director of communications for Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. “There’s a definite need for assistance for some of those folks who are heavily impacted.”

The designations follow months of abnormally dry and drought conditions in the state. Seven Days reports that farmers have estimated at least $27 million in crop losses as a result.

In August, Waterman urged farmers who had suffered losses to contact state officials. Reports of a 30% crop loss or more would help the state compile a compelling case for the emergency declaration, he wrote in a post on the agency’s webpage

The Champlain Valley was hit particularly hard.

“It seemed, based on what the USDA heard for feedback, that a real ribbon of the state down through the Champlain corridor, through Addison County, southern Chittenden County, and on down into Bennington was where the drought was heavily focused,” Waterman said.  

Loren Wood owns Woodnotch Farms Inc., a dairy farm in Shoreham. He said his hay and corn crops were significantly affected by the dry conditions.   

“The corn was stunted right from the start,” he said. “I’d say we had like two-thirds of a crop.”

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Wood said he rented another farm to make sure he had enough feed for his heifers, and he spent $20,000 drilling an additional well on land he farms in Orwell. Wood said the expense was worthwhile. 

“Quite honestly, without water, you don’t have anything,” he said. 

The loans can help farmers replace equipment or livestock, reorganize farming operations, or help them refinance certain debts. FSA will grant loans based on the extent of losses and farmers’ financial stability. Farmers can cover 100% of their production losses through loans that are typically paid back in one to seven years.

Wood said he was interested in the relief, but wanted to learn more about the program before applying.

“I’ve done that before, when we’ve had excessive rain or been really short on feed,” Wood said. “I’ve reached out to those folks before and they’ve always been really good about it.”

Brian Kemp, president of the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition, said the organic beef farm he manages in Sudbury, Mountain Meadows Farm, lost some yield, but won’t need to request assistance. 

A cornfield in Cornwall shows the effects of this year’s drought. Photo by David Moats

“Our pastures were definitely compromised, and we even had to supplemental feed a couple pastures mid-summer, which is rare,” Kemp said. “We normally don’t have to do that. So we ended up using more feed than normal and while harvesting less feed than normal. It was a kind of a double hit there.”

Kemp said he’ll work with the executive director of the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition to spread the word about the relief to other farmers who need it. He anticipates the money will be useful to many producers in the state. 

“When it’s a wet year, the quality is not always the best, but there’s plenty of it,” he said. “But a drought can really, really test you.”

In Rutland County, Greg Cox operates Boardman Hill Farm, where he produces a variety of organic meat and vegetables. He’s long been concerned about climate change, and has designed his operations to mitigate the impacts of drought conditions. 

“Our norm is now made up of extremes,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 45 years; I’ve seen things changing. And so I’ve been working to try to make what I do sustainable and resilient in any way that I can.”

His soil holds water well, and he maintains an irrigation pond for worst-case scenarios. 

“Even with that, I ran out of water three different times in my pond,” he said. “And then I had to set up additional pumps and pump from a quarry to fill up my pond. If I’m dry, it is really dry.”

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue officially designated Addison, Bennington, Caledonia, Chittenden, Essex, Orange, Washington, Windham and Windsor counties as natural disaster areas on Nov. 12. Wendy Wilton, executive director of Vermont’s FSA, said the designations would soon be adjusted to include Rutland County, too. 

Farmers in contiguous counties, which includes all Vermont counties and several in New York, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, are also eligible for aid. Producers who have experienced drought-related losses are encouraged to contact their local USDA service center. 

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member with a special focus on issues of importance to Southern Vermont. She previously worked as a reporter for the Addison Independent, where she covered politics, business, the arts and environmental issues. She also served as an assistant editor at Vermont Sports magazine and VT Ski + Ride. Emma majored in science journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she was editor-in-chief of the Current. In 2018, she received a first-place award from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in the columnist category.

Email: [email protected]

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