Many Vermont farmers dealing with silt, sand from Irene
ROCHESTER, Vt. -- Most of the refuse left behind from Tropical Storm Irene — televisions, refrigerators, books and toys — has been cleared from the pastures and fields of Liberty Hill Farm along the White River. But the flood waters also deposited a layer of gravel, sand and silt that is choking grass in some spots of the normally rich, loamy soil and hampering spring planting of other feed crops for their dairy cows.
"There's still a tremendous amount of work to do up and down the valley," said farmer Beth Kennett.
More than 460 Vermont farms were damaged by Irene. Seven months later, farmers are still grappling with what the floodwaters left behind, including rocks, trees, gravel, sand and silt that has turned some fields from a fertile brown to a tinge of gray or even sandy white. The composition of the soil will affect yields.
Some farmers are paying thousands of dollars to use excavators and bulldozers to remove the debris and scrape off the silt. They're also plowing under sand and adding nutrients and paying for seed to reseed crops.
Air and sun can't reach grass that's buried under inches of silt, so farmers must scrape it off, said Diane Bothfeld, deputy agriculture secretary. For other crops, the sand is being tilled under but it affects the soil's fertility, she said.
"It used to have a great growing capacity, and now you've got all this sand in it, and you know it doesn't grow stuff as well," she said.
In nearby towns of Bethel and Stockbridge where White River that took out large sections of road in a mountain valley, a horse pasture and farm fields are white with sand even though piles of it have already been removed. At Liberty Hill, large swaths of sand sit on top of the winter rye they planted.
Farmers are getting some help with the challenge of getting fields prepared. Last year's prolonged fall and the dry spring have given them time to clear fields. The federal government has set aside $4.7 million to reimburse farmers for work to restore their land. The grants will cover up to 75 percent of the cost of work but the work must be done first.
"Nothing's going to make somebody whole, but it's significant," said Robert Paquin, executive director of the USDA's Farm Service Agency in Vermont.
And Kennett is grateful to the droves of volunteers who turned out to remove debris from her family's farm last fall.
Still, she said, there's a lot of work to do.
In nearby Granville, Gordon Waite, farm manager for Valley View Farm, which raises grass-fed beef, has been out with his tractor removing gravel and rocks.
"It will take a lot of time," he said.
Repercussions from the storm are likely to be felt for years.
"Our pasture was obliterated," Kennett said. "There are areas where we have to reseed to hay, areas where we would normally have grass and hay and pasture. We're talking about planting them to corn. We can then plow it under and then get more nutrient matter under the soil."