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All the buffers are gone

The Great Vermont Flood: At Conant’s Riverside Dairy, stream-bank erosion from flooding is becoming a threat.

Chris Torres, Editor, American Agriculturist

April 30, 2024

7 Min Read
Dave Conant stands near an eroding riverbank
THEY’RE GONE: Dave Conant, owner of Conant’s Riverside Dairy, says erosion from flooding has destroyed buffers that protected the farm for decades. “This is a big threat down here. I'm afraid of it,” he says. 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 second of four stories chronicling how farms are recovering and what they are doing to plan for this year’s growing season.

Driving over the green steel trusses of the historic Winooski River Bridge to Burlington, Vt., one can easily see the Winooski River as it flows past Conant’s Riverside Dairy, a picturesque 1,000-acre dairy that’s been in Dave and Ransom Conant’s family for six generations.

Like numerous farms up and down the Winooski River, the Conants depend on the fertile, rich soils of the riverside ground to grow corn and hay for their hundreds of dairy cows. But storms and flooding are taking their toll.

“We’ve had a tremendous amount of stream-bank erosion,” Dave Conant says. Last July’s flood, and another flood in December, knocked out trees and stream banks the farm has grown back for decades. Cows were once allowed to go into the river.

Fields that were once protected now have inches and, in some places, feet of beach sand, remnants of when the mighty Winooski left its banks twice and flooded fields. It’s a situation that has Dave wondering, how long until the river threatens the farm itself?

“This is a big threat down here. I'm afraid of it,” he says.

Double whammy

Last July’s flood, the same that affected hundreds of farms across the state, hit at a less-than-ideal time.

In some fields, Dave says the corn was not tasseled or had ears, so it was still in a stage that allowed it to grow once the waters receded. Some corn that flooded was silty, a result of being underwater for days. But in other places, the corn was knocked down and later goosenecked. Silt and beach sand from the river bottom was left behind.

Dave says the compromised corn averaged 12 tons an acre, instead of the usual 25 tons. The farm harvested 5,000 tons of corn silage, nearly half of what’s usually harvested. Dave says he had to travel anywhere from 2 miles away to four hours round trip to get silage for winter.

Ransom, Dave’s son, says hay production dropped by 40%.

Chris Torres - Dave Conant stands in sand on an open field

Harvested corn had to be inoculated to prevent mycotoxins. It’s been fed to the cows, and luckily, milk production per cow has stayed the same, along with component levels. The farm has 425 milking cows, 65 dry cows and 350 young stock.

Then, months after the July flood, another flood came through, just before Christmas. Three inches of rain fell after significant snow accumulated on nearby mountains. The runoff flowed into the Winooski River and led to another major flood.

“The waters rose fast, and that’s where the problems mounted,” Ransom says.

Many streamside buffers — some 50 feet, others extending up to 300 feet and already teetering on the edge of failure — were lost.

“Two storms last year, the flood of July and a storm just before Christmas, were like something I have never seen before,” Dave says.

He estimates the farm lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in feed and having to pay to bring more in. Crop insurance covered some of those losses, he says, but not enough to cover the cost of getting extra feed.

He says he has enough feed to get through this year’s harvest, but it will be close.

“We haven’t been that close in a long time,” Dave says.

No more protection

Tom Eaton, an agronomist for Agricultural Consulting Services in Vermont, has seen the same situation play out on other farms along the Winooski.

Eaton works with six other farms, all dairies, comprising thousands of acres. The Conant farm got hit hard, but others got hit even worse. Erosion caused by the rushing river has allowed sand to accumulate on a lot of fields.

“Some places had 3 to 5 feet of sand come up,” Eaton says. “One of my farms had to rent a big bulldozer and pushed the sand to one side. I had one farmer take out 20,000 yards of beach sand on a 16-acre field. That’s a lot of sand.”

Conant’s Riverside Dairy - Conant’s Riverside Dairy farm covered in flood water

At the Conant farm, the damage from stream-bank erosion is clear. At the banks of the Winooski, trees that once anchored the buffers lie flat in the river. In some places, the stream banks have been totally carved up.

Clumps of sand from 6 inches to a foot deep can be found in a field that sits behind the farm’s freestall barns. Grass has been broadcast-seeded on a lot of this ground, especially close to the river.

“It’s like beach sand. You can’t grow anything in it. It has no nutrient value, so you have to just work it into the ground,” Eaton says.

Managing for survival

Dave’s concerns over stream-bank erosion have him thinking of installing more permanent stabilization measures, such as riprap.

He estimates that between 500 and 600 feet of stream-bank work needs to be done to redirect water and stabilize his fields. He is attempting to partner with other farms to present a proposal to state and federal officials for funding and to get some work done.

Stream-bank work is expensive to do, Eaton says, and it is difficult to get funding. Why? The fear that intervening in a natural process will lead to unintended problems in other places.

“We have tried getting that in other watersheds, including following Irene and other storms,” Eaton says. “And they have gotten negative feedback on the idea of riprap and other practices along waterways.”

In the meantime, Dave and Ransom are hoping for a better year. They have invested in cover cropping, no-till and other conservation measures to reduce surface runoff and allow water to infiltrate.  

“We try to plant green into standing rye, and I plan on doing more of that this spring,” Dave says.

Chris Torres - Dave Conant and Tom Eaton engage in conversation near a dairy barn with cows

Eaton has worked with the Conants on installing conservation practices. The farm sacrifices potential yield each year just to get cover crops in the ground in the fall.

“A dozen years ago, everything on the farm was 105-day corn. Now, the farm hasn’t grown anything over 97 days for quite a few years,” he says.

It’s paid off. Organic matter has measured 4% in some places, which Eaton says is impressive compared to other farms he works with. “It took a lot of effort to get the soil health up. We’d laugh at a 2-inch rainstorm. A day later you could go back and say, ‘Yeah, that water is moving. It’s going down through the soil.’ Or during droughts, ‘We’re not seeing any drought stress on this corn,’” he says.

But the floods have set many farms back. Organic matter on some of the Conants’ fields has dropped to 1% or less because of the amount of silt and sand left behind.

Dave says another serious storm this year would be devastating. He is hoping for the best, but he is expecting the worst.

“These are anomalies that are happening more often,” he says. “When Irene hit, we thought we would never see this again. Now, it’s become commonplace. These are getting to be very normal. We weren’t threatened before. I never felt like it was a threat until Irene hit.”

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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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