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Northeast flooding ruins crops, dealing blow to farmers' livelihoods

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It's not just heat. Torrential rain caused massive flooding in Vermont this week. It caused catastrophic damage. And now all that rain is making its way down the swollen and flooding Connecticut River and taking out farms along the way. As Connecticut Public Radio's Patrick Skahill reports, the timing couldn't have been worse. Farmers were just days away from the harvest when the floodwaters began to rise and wipe out their crops.

PATRICK SKAHILL, BYLINE: The flood came just days before Tony Botticello (ph) was going to start picking his corn.

TONY BOTTICELLO: We haven't picked an ear yet, and it's gone. What am I going to do?

SKAHILL: He's farmed on the banks of the Connecticut River since the 1980s. It's some of the Northeast's most fertile farmland. Botticello points to a path submerged in water. We can't get in, so he pulls up a drone video on his phone. His hands shake as we see hundreds of acres gone - orderly green rows of crops blending into brown water.

BOTTICELLO: This was a field of pumpkins that's all gone. Over on the other side of that tree is - that was a hay lot right there. That's gone - all underwater.

SKAHILL: The river began flooding on Tuesday and continued to rise during the week. Heavy rains in Vermont sent entire trees, boulders and even vehicles flowing south through Connecticut. It's dirty water, and when that water touches crops, people can't eat that food.

BOTTICELLO: If it touches the ears at all, it's gone. The bacteria in there is just disgusting. It's sewage, you know?

SKAHILL: On the other side of the river, Francis Whalen (ph) stands before a path. It leads to his fields of corn and hay. It's about a mile inland, and the water is right at our shoes.

FRANCIS WHALEN: This is going to take weeks to go down to even get in there to see how much damage is there. Nothing, I think, is salvageable anyhow at this point.

SKAHILL: He says when farmers heard the water was coming, they move fast to save tractors and other valuable gear.

WHALEN: So on Monday, we all started - it was like a mass evacuation of farm machinery, something you never see. You know, it was very stressful for the farmers.

BOTTICELLO: Bryan Hurlburt is commissioner of the State Department of Agriculture. He says farmers all over the region have spent weeks dumping seed and sweat into the ground.

BRYAN HURLBURT: All of your expenses are accruing until, you know, just a couple of weeks ago. Before you can actually start making money, a flood event like this wipes out all of that work.

SKAHILL: Hurlburt toured the damage. He estimates 2,000 acres of farms were underwater at one point.

SHURESH GHIMIRE: These are the kind of situation where farmers lose farms.

SKAHILL: Shuresh Ghimire is an extension educator and vegetable specialist at the University of Connecticut. He travels around the state helping farmers. He says they're used to Mother Nature being an agent of chaos.

GHIMIRE: But this year, the extremes has been very problematic.

SKAHILL: A late May frost wiped out crops of peaches, apples and strawberries. Then Canadian wildfires blanketed the region in smoke, making it so some farmers couldn't even go outside to work. The cost of all these events are still unclear. Even before the flood, federal officials say the country had already seen a dozen climate disasters this year. Each cost more than $1 billion in losses.

BOTTICELLO: See, that's the thing about farmers.

SKAHILL: Back at Tony Botticello's farm, he looks out at the flooded field. Even after insurance payments, he estimates he'll still lose hundreds of thousands of dollars on this year's crops. For farmers like him across the region, it's not a total loss but a significant setback. Still, he's thinking ahead.

BOTTICELLO: My dad used to say, if you want to gamble, don't go to a casino. Put all your money in the ground. See if it grows.

SKAHILL: After all, he says, he's a Red Sox fan. There's always next year. For NPR News, I'm Patrick Skahill in Hartford. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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