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A mountain of fear and debt

The Great Vermont Flood: At Foote Brook Farm, the emotional toll of last July’s flooding has been huge, but hopes are high for 2024.

Chris Torres, Editor, American Agriculturist

April 29, 2024

8 Min Read
Joie Lehouiller points to a pile of trash
REMNANTS OF THE FLOOD: Joie Lehouiller points to a pile of trash collected from last year’s flood cleanup. Tractors, ice machines and boxes to pack vegetables were lost. Chris Torres

Editor’s note: Last year’s historic flooding in Vermont caused millions of dollars of damage to farms across the state. This is the first of four stories chronicling how farms are recovering and what they are doing to plan for this year’s growing season.

Joie Lehouillier is used to dealing with floods. Foote Brook Farm in Johnson, Vt., the farm she runs with her husband, Tony, is only a half-mile from the Lamoille River.

The soil is fertile and rich in nutrients, a place that is prime for growing 140 different crops on 35 acres. Farming near the river is a gamble she and her husband are willing to take each year.

But last July was different. It was something Lehouillier says she had never experienced before.

“It didn’t just hit our crops,” she says. “That would be devastating all by itself. We’re used to losing crops. The timing of the flooding was what really stuck.”

Last year’s flooding, which the National Weather Service calls “The Great Vermont Flood of July 10-11, 2023,” hit at the worst time for Lehouillier and many other growers in the state. On her farm, 75% of crops in the ground were lost to the floodwaters.

A barn on the property that had never flooded got inundated with 5 feet of water, damaging tractors, ice machines and boxes used to pack vegetables for sale. “Anything you can imagine that you’re going to put vegetables in was lost,” Lehouillier adds.

By the time the floodwaters receded, and the damage was done, she estimates the farm lost more than $500,000. It took days for the water to recede. It got as deep as 10 feet in some spots.

“You had to take a kayak or canoe out to places on the farm,” Lehouillier says. “It was the worst ever. Irene came through and did damage to crops, but it didn’t get to the barn or sheds like this did.”

Mountain of debt

To make matters worse, each spring Lehouillier and her husband take out a line of credit to pay for everything they need to get crops in the ground. In a typical year, she says they can pay everything back by late summer or fall. But with last year’s flooding, they couldn’t pay off their line of credit.

The flood damaged a lot of equipment. Two heavy equipment mechanics in the family took off work for a week to help them drain tractors of water, put oil back in and get them running. Some of the tractors started, some didn’t.

Friends of the family stepped up and helped. One friend in nearby Cambridge set up a GoFundMe that raised more than $60,000 for the farm. Lehouillier says she didn’t want to take the money. But with no income coming in, she was faced with having to lay off employees, some of whom have been with the farm more than 20 years.

“I was really against it at first,” she says. “But I was really desperate to keep our employees. If I had to lay them off, we weren’t going to be able to recover because we wouldn’t have the manpower to do it.”

Foote Brook Farm - An aerial view of flooding on a Vermont farm

The money kept payroll going for a little over a month until some crops could be harvested and sold. The farm has five 90-foot greenhouses and two high tunnels. Some of the greenhouses weren’t affected at all, and crops continued growing. The farm also brought in vegetables from other farms to sell at the farm store, which accounts for 40% of the farm’s income.

"The farm stand is key to our success,” Lehouillier says. “Water came within 20 feet of the stand but didn't touch it.”

Lehouillier says the farm has no crop or flood insurance. She says crop insurance is too expensive and not meant for farms with a diversified number of crops.

The farm got a grant through the state’s $20 million Business Emergency Gap Assistance Program (BEGAP). Lehouillier says she and her husband applied for every grant and loan program to keep everything going. Altogether, they were able to scrounge up $200,000. But the farm is still hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

“How I feel right now is we are in a mountain of debt,” she says. “We have enough credit and relationships with banks that we will try to make payments. But if we can’t make it out of this year without being able to pay some of those loans off, or really decrease them, it’s going to be hard for us to keep going. We need to have a really good year, so we can take a couple hundred thousand dollars and put it toward all the debt that we’re looking at.”

No trusting Mother Nature

Lehouillier says a lot has changed about how she thinks of weather. She used to only fear remnants of hurricanes, like what happened in late August 2011 when remnants of Hurricane Irene devastated parts of the state, including her farm.

Those types of storms were at one time rare in Vermont. In fact, according to the National Weather Service, only the “Great Flood of Nov. 3-4, 1927,” exceeded the devastation created by Irene and last year’s flooding. The problem is that Irene and last year’s flood happened within a span of 12 years.

Foote Brook Farm - A barn with equipment and various products covered with water

Lehouillier fears that with climate change, big storms are happening more frequently. Now, every storm keeps her up at night.

“We feel like we can’t sustain any substantial rainfall anymore,” she says. “We’re not going to trust the river gauge estimates anymore. We’re going to assume it’s going to go much higher than the forecast. That will give us time to move stuff out of the way.”

Road to recovery

But Lehouillier and her husband aren’t throwing in the towel. They want to keep farming near the Lamoille River as long as they can.

Tests done by University of Vermont Extension found nothing left in the soil that could hinder the farm’s organic certification.

Lehouillier says she wants to get her feet wet in agritourism this year to diversify the farm’s income.

“People love to come to the farm stand and hang out, especially during fall foliage,” she says. But because of food safety rules, the farm must be careful of where visitors can roam.

So, Lehouillier says she and her husband plan to carve out a mowed path on the other side of a greenhouse to plant 5 acres of sunflowers. She hopes this will provide a safe area where visitors can enjoy something different.

Other changes include putting equipment sheds on higher ground and reducing the number of crops to move more of them to higher elevation. Green kale is the farm’s highest-value and biggest selling wholesale crop, she says. The plan is to grow more this spring and summer, and to reduce other crops such as winter squash and beets.

"We are in a place that we feel confident that we can start again,” Lehouillier says. “If this year can go successfully, then we can go into 2025 with some confidence.”

Chris Torres - Joie Lehouiller smiles as she holds plants inside of a greenhouse

Still, last year’s flood is something she will never forget. The stress has taken an emotional toll.

“Last summer was really hard, emotionally,” Lehouillier says. “But my husband, he is the type of guy that, no matter what happens, you get up and you just keep moving. And I remember the day after the flood, he was up and moving.

“I’m excited for this season,” she adds. “The total solar eclipse was amazing, and that brought my spirits and Tony’s up, too. But Tony’s 55. He’s a tall, thin, wiry man who is tired. He is almost always in a good mood and upbeat, but this is really wearing on him.”

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About the Author(s)

Chris Torres

Editor, American Agriculturist

Chris Torres, editor of American Agriculturist, previously worked at Lancaster Farming, where he started in 2006 as a staff writer and later became regional editor. Torres is a seven-time winner of the Keystone Press Awards, handed out by the Pennsylvania Press Association, and he is a Pennsylvania State University graduate.

Torres says he wants American Agriculturist to be farmers' "go-to product, continuing the legacy and high standard (former American Agriculturist editor) John Vogel has set." Torres succeeds Vogel, who retired after 47 years with Farm Progress and its related publications.

"The news business is a challenging job," Torres says. "It makes you think outside your small box, and you have to formulate what the reader wants to see from the overall product. It's rewarding to see a nice product in the end."

Torres' family is based in Lebanon County, Pa. His wife grew up on a small farm in Berks County, Pa., where they raised corn, soybeans, feeder cattle and more. Torres and his wife are parents to three young boys.

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