Irene, one month later: Farmers struggle to start over

More than a month after flooding from the remains of Hurricane Irene inundated the Schoharie Valley,
Todd Van Aller walks along the Little Schoharie Creek near his family farm in October 2011, about a month after the farm was flooded as a result of Tropical Storm Irene.
Todd Van Aller walks along the Little Schoharie Creek near his family farm in October 2011, about a month after the farm was flooded as a result of Tropical Storm Irene.

Todd Van Aller looked out over one of the crop fields he’s tended since childhood at the Schoharie County farm his family purchased in 1895.

Corn stalks by the thousands — now stained brown — lay on their sides. The once-level field appears to roll with waves of silt. Logs from an upstream lumber operation are strewn about the corn plants that still stand.

He estimates 25 acres of the 30-acre cornfield was ruined, unusable after floodwaters reached the ears, Van Aller said.

“It was nice corn out there,” he said, pointing to the field that sits a few hundred feet from the Schoharie Creek.

More than a month after flooding from the remains of Hurricane Irene inundated the Schoharie Valley, officials are still trying to get a solid handle on the situation.

State Agriculture and Markets Department spokesman Michael Moran said “rough estimates” put the damage at 200,000 acres of crops statewide and $70 million in losses.

In Schoharie County alone, staff at the Soil and Water Conservation District and Farm Service Agency office have identified at least 48 farms impacted by the storms. Some 342 livestock and other animals are known to have been lost in the county — 61 dairy cows, nine beef cows, 239 chickens, eight goats and 25 sheep — and the counting continues.

A tally of crops lost after being inundated by floodwaters rose to 4,000 acres, and there’s no estimate yet for the value.

Not all land was just damaged. Some was lost altogether. The Schoharie County Farm Service Agency estimates between 75 and 100 acres of land is gone, washed away downstream.

At least 20 Montgomery County farmers lost crops and sustained damage to farmland in the Schoharie and Mohawk valleys. A major task is working to get money for clearing debris and repairing soil erosion, Farm Service Agency Director Andrew Michael said.

Michael said the agency has been granted funding to help clear debris and fix streams, and the office is requesting bids for that work. But the question about what to do about lost crops has not been answered.

Michael said the hope is legislators in Washington will appropriate money to help farmers replace those crops.

“That’s the feed supply for those animals for this winter and they’ve got to replace it somehow,” Michael said. “There’s just no guarantee because we all know how tight money is in Washington.”

Destruction zone

In the village of Middleburgh, nearly every structure was flooded. In the town, at least 14 farms, including Van Aller’s, were inundated.

Another 11 farms were wrecked in Schoharie, as were four in Blenheim, three each in Conesville and Esperance, two in Central Bridge and one each in Jefferson, Richmondville, Fulton and Broome.

Van Aller’s cattle were rescued from his silt-filled barn after Irene, then the barn flooded a second time when Tropical Storm Lee roared through the valley a week later. He said one of the biggest difficulties will be getting the fields back into shape to be worked next spring.

The Little Schoharie Creek, which runs alongside the family farm, met with its bigger counterpart, the Schoharie Creek, during the floods. The merged creek left debris — fuel tanks, parts of houses and trees — sitting in the undulating fields that can’t be worked with a regular tractor or harvester.

“It’s going to be nightmare trying to do anything with it,” said Van Aller, who figures the family lost 90 to 100 acres worth of feed out of about 150 acres they planted.

It’s unclear how he can replace the feed. He’s hoping one of his fellow farmers comes through with an offer to get him some.

His 80 cows are at the Stanton farm in East Cobleskill, where they’re learning a different milking process altogether.

“They’re taking good care of them over there,” he said.

Compounding the damage is his lost milk check — he figures he’ll lose at least $80,000 while he’s working to put it back together with the help of volunteers he can’t say enough about.

So why does he farm in a flood plain? Van Aller said the fertile Schoharie Valley doesn’t just have some of the best soil in New York state; it’s the best in the world.

And that’s in large part due to its location and how the soil formed in the Schoharie Valley. Living in the valley, he said, comes with flooding.

Van Aller, 48, grew up on the farm in Middleburgh. “We had a lot of floods before. Nothing as big as this one,” he said. “That’s the price you gotta pay with being next to the river.”

This time, though, the floods took away the good soil and left sand, rocks and voids in its place.

All our photos

From the farms of Schoharie County to the streets of the Stockade, our photographers captured the flooding in dozens of photos you can see by clicking HERE

Greg Wickham, CEO of Dairylea Cooperative, where many Schoharie County dairy products go, said primary aftereffects of the disasters included processing plant shutdowns, difficulty getting to farms that lost roads leading to them and lost or damaged crops and fields.

Thanks to the work of daring milk truck delivery drivers and flexible processing plant employees, Wickham said the overall loss of milk following the disaster will stay under 5 percent of total production in the Northeast.

But future production is a concern because of the loss of feed crops. Poor weather earlier in the year left little, if any, surplus.

“There isn’t a lot of extra crops to be purchased even if a person had a lot of money,” Wickham said.

In limbo

Fields are in disarray and farmers are hoping government programs aimed at helping to repair them and replace lost feed will come through. But a month after the mess was made, many are still uneasy, and the long-term impact of the floods on the fields is unclear.

“You don’t know the full extent of the losses, and there’s no quick fixes. It’s that limbo that agriculture is in right now,” said Sandie Prokop of Crossbrook Farms in Middleburgh, which lost cattle, crops and roads. “It’s just a little scary when you look towards the future.”

Prokop is aware of about 150 maple trees that were washed away by the Schoharie Creek. “It’s like the Mississippi River. It takes, it gives,” she said.

Barber’s Vegetable Farm in Fultonham had both disaster and success because of the way they work the fields. Some 180 acres of crops were in production, but another 220 acres were in rotational crops like alfalfa in an effort to keep nutrients balanced.

“Thank goodness we had so much of the property in rotational crops so that we didn’t have so much bare ground. So when the water came through it didn’t gouge everything out so much as it has in other years,” Cindy Barber said.

The farm produces about 60 different kinds of vegetables, including potatoes, pumpkins and squash, for sale at markets and at a farm stand that has become a fixture on Route 30, south of Middleburgh. But of the 180 acres of vegetable crops, only about three acres of plum tomatoes survived Irene and Lee.

Damage to infrastructure at Barber’s and other farms included gear and equipment like refrigeration units and anything with a motor or compressor on it.

Farm workers, seeing bad weather on the horizon, picked everything they could on the Friday and Saturday before Irene forced the creeks out of their banks. That produce was sold within a week and a half.

To keep the farm stand open, the family contacted farmers that buy their produce to see if they would send available produce the other way. The farm stand reopened within a week of the storm.

But as September turns into October, field repair, the results of soil testing and the total amount of damage remains unknown. Staff from Cornell Cooperative Extension took soil samples to see what’s left in it, Barber said.

“For right now, we’re not planting any crops,” she said. “Here we are a month out and there are people who still are trying to muck out their places. Farmers that need to get their fields cleaned are still trying to get rid of debris.” .

Despite the work left ahead, she said the help provided by volunteers can’t be understated.

“We’re in such better shape because of all the people who have helped with their hands. They just showed up,” she said.

Another unknown is how farmers — who make up the largest landowners in Schoharie County — will be able to pay taxes on land that’s not producing revenue. People not on farms are out of jobs, some lost their houses but will still get a tax bill.

The Barbers lost their 200-year-old farmhouse. They plan to build a new home on land they have at a higher elevation.

“That’s in the future,” Barber said. Rebuilding the farm comes first.

Cows first

When the floodwater raged through Maple Downs Farm in Middleburgh, Denise Lloyd was stuck on the second floor of the farmhouse.

Out in the barn, her husband, son and a full-time employee worked feverishly to push cows out of the barn and towards higher ground while the water rose. All three got stuck on the upper level of the barn with the hay and spent the night there.

“It’s a terrible feeling to watch buildings collapse, animals go by with their head above water. I never knew that cows could swim, but they can,” Lloyd said.

One day later, as the Lloyds’ home sat filled with mud from the flooding, their cows were being milked at another farm.

“Our house is still standing. There’s a lot of other people out there that had their homes washed away. I try to look at the positive things, if I can. It helps,” Lloyd said.

The younger cows didn’t make out as well as the larger ones that swam their way through the floodwater to higher ground. Lloyd said her family lost about 47 head of young cattle — high quality bovines they raised and planned to sell as premium cows.

Raising those cows for sale was one way to mitigate the “roller coaster” milk pricing system.

“You really can’t rely solely on the milk check,” she said, calling the loss of the young stock a “double whammy.”

Most of the surviving cattle are back in their own dairy barn, for which Lloyd said the family is fortunate. And they’re grateful for all the help that came from friends, family and strangers that helped get it done.

But the work to put farming back together in the flood-swept valleys remains, and what it will take to accomplish it is still a mystery, she said.

And, a month after the flood, they were still waiting to learn what their flood insurance company would do for them, Lloyd said. “There’s still a lot of unknowns.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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