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Vermont Lieutenant Governor, a farmer, talks about flooding impacts on farms

Vermont Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Vermont Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman

When Vermont Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman is not in the Statehouse presiding over the Senate or traveling the state advocating for various issues, he is working on his organic vegetable farm in Hinesburg. The Progressive’s Full Moon Farm avoided the severe flooding that many farms experienced last week, but Zuckerman has experienced flooding in the past when he farmed at Burlington’s Intervale. Speaking with WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley, Zuckerman describes what it’s like to experience flooding, how the state can help and how it feels to be among those who avoided the floods.

I certainly have a bit of survivor's guilt. Certainly through the whole central quarter of Vermont and any farms that were down on that fantastic river bottom land have now been flooded out. And that's a huge number of farms, both diversified farms like mine and also number of dairy farms, cornfields and hay fields. So we've survived. We've got our own damages from the ongoing wet spell, diseases and nutrient loss in the soils. But it's hard to complain when I still have some stuff I can harvest and not everything was underwater.

Have you talked to farmers that have been impacted by the flooding?

Well, I've communicated with a number of them. I've been trying not to overly get in people's space while they're trying to repair equipment or salvage what they can. But they’re, I used to farm in the Intervale and I know the experience of being flooded out. And it's just devastating. And this is the worst, absolute worst, time of year because all the work is in to the fields. All the fall harvest, big harvest transplants are in whether it's winter squash, onions, you normally harvest in August, all that labor is into your product. And people were just starting to really see the ramp up of that, you know, fun summer bounty of late July and August. And the problem is, if land has been flooded, they're supposed to wait 30 days to plant again. And if they wait 30 days to mid-August, you can't get a lot of the fun foods in the fall. They'll get some greens, spinach, you know, some herbs, maybe a harvest of carrots late in the fall. But really, the whole season is pretty well destroyed for those that were flooded out.

So, people who aren't farmers will probably think well, you know, your crops just get wet and you might get a little bit more dirt on them. Can you explain to somebody who's not a farmer why flooding is not just a little bit more water, a little bit more dirt on it?

Right. Unfortunately floodwater is therefore typically contaminated. Whether it's contamination from home sewage systems, or municipal sewage systems, whether it's industrial sites or parking lots that were also flooded and then picked up any oils and chemicals that came off cars or industrial sites that flooded that might have chemicals. So when food has been flooded it is pretty much considered inedible. There are tests that show that you know, on occasion, the fruit has not been affected and the water was you know, so diluted. But the risk is just too great from E. coli to heavy metals. And so the health rule of thumb is you cannot sell food that's been flooded because of that exposure.

You are a farmer. What does it take to clean up after a farm is flooded?

Yeah, I mean, that's sort of the most grueling, one of the most grueling aspects is that you're going to harvest nothing. And yet, you still have to go out and uncover the, maybe you've got some crops that were in black plastic, your vine crops, your cucumbers and other crops, to have helped hold down the weeds. Well, now that plastic is coated in mud. It's really heavy. You've got to pull it up out of the dirt and slop, get it to dry off, roll it up, throw that away and all the drip tape. You've got to get your fields hopefully in the later summer, maybe you can get some cover crops in to rebuild some of the nutrient loss. So you've got to work your land. You've got to buy seed and put on cover crops, again, all with no income. And that's really one of the big challenges is you've got to keep working even though you've got nothing to show for it in the bank. And it's emotionally really hard. You're out there where, you know, two weeks ago you were looking at bean plants that you're going to hopefully harvest green beans, you know, the next week and they're just gone or they're covered in glop. So you're still seeing what could have been. But it's a huge amount of work and if the waters got up into your equipment shed or your barn then that's just a whole ‘nother level of mess because you've got to really clean your equipment, make sure you get mud and water out of those systems because it can ruin you know, hundreds of thousands of dollars of tractors and implements if you don't get them really clean and back into shape before you know the muck sets into the joints.

David Zuckerman, as lieutenant governor how concerned are you about the viability of farms in the state following this flood?

Well, it's a huge issue. Some of my mentors, some of the generation of organic farmers before me and conventional farmers and dairy farmers, you know if you're already on the edge anyway or you're getting ready to retire how much how much energy you put into sort of starting all over again and rebuilding, especially if your buildings or equipment were hit? But you know, when you look at some of that best farmland is in the floodplains. But this was a second hundred year plus flood in 12 years and it's becoming the new normal. And really, farms are going to have to contemplate do they stay where they are or do they move and start over again? You know, we have a great community that supports our farms. We have a huge thriving local food movement in Vermont. And you know, that love and those dollars are going to be critical to having farmers who have maybe been flooded twice in the last 12 years thinking about whether they want to do it again. But it's definitely a big question. And it's a question I think everybody has to think about when they're thinking about climate change and the actions we take day in and day out, to either mitigate our individual actions, or think about our societal use of energy. Because the most fundamental things we need are shelter and food and water. And if our food becomes impacted every handful of years, that's a real big question mark for us and we need to be thinking about climate change and what we're doing about it.

David, I'm sure that you've seen a lot of the federal folks come in to Vermont to take a look at what's going on and promise help. The state has promised help. What kind of help do farmers actually need?

Well, certainly, there's a possibility that volunteers can help although it was critical more so beforehand to get things harvested that they could before the floodwaters came. Unfortunately, sort of the bottom line is money. And I think there are a number of programs, both in agriculture as well as the FEMA monies, typically, they are zero interest loans, which means they still need to be paid back. There may be some grant money out there. I know in Vermont NOFA-VT has a Farmer Recovery Fund. There's a number of business loan or grant nonprofits that are out from Montpelier Alive to the Vermont Recovery Fund. I'm forgetting its name right now. But you can go on both the state website, you can go on my lieutenant governor's website, we have a number of links to different organizations that are taking money in and at no cost, turning it back out as straight up grants to help small businesses and farms of which farms are small businesses. But we're talking about millions of damages of all across the state and while the federal money will do some of it, they won't cover it all by any means.

No, not with the volume out there. Glad to hear that you worked out okay there in Hinesburg.

We did. Although interestingly enough Sunday night we got two and a half inches of rain in an hour and there were definitely some wash outs. Not flood on my fields. But even some of the roads in Hinesburg were under two feet of water. And thankfully it didn't maybe impact too many storefronts but these rains just continuing is really problematic.

Do you still, I want to say, get scared when you hear about severe storms coming through and worry about your farm?

I worry. We're on a slightly sloped soil so if it's incredible downpour we'll get some washouts and ruts. Again, we're not next to a flood so I don't get that fear. I get the fear of the heavy winds or the downpours. And I of course get the fear for all of my kindred farmers around the state, who I know are just devastated by what's happened and the fear of it happening again.

Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman has posted informationon flood resources including information for volunteers and how to donate to groups that are supporting flood victims and farms.

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