A 'tremendous loss' for area farms

Robin Chesmer of Graywall Farms in Lebanon holds a corn stalk to demonstrate how high the crop was before Irene hit the area Sunday. Chesmer said the corn crop was just 10 to 14 days from harvest, and he hopes some can be salvaged.
Robin Chesmer of Graywall Farms in Lebanon holds a corn stalk to demonstrate how high the crop was before Irene hit the area Sunday. Chesmer said the corn crop was just 10 to 14 days from harvest, and he hopes some can be salvaged.

Tropical Storm Irene left most of the state's apple crop on the trees, ready for the start of apple-picking season Labor Day weekend, but it seriously damaged feed corn, sweet corn, vegetable and tobacco crops and temporarily shut down commercial oyster beds.

That's the preliminary assessment of Steven Reviczky, commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture, after surveying the damage from a small plane and hearing reports from farmers about the storm's impact on the state's growers. After seeing other parts of the state from the air earlier this week, Reviczky plans to fly over New London County today.

"There's some pretty significant damage to feed corn for the dairy farms and to late-season sweet corn," Reviczky said.

Farms in western and central parts of the state were damaged mainly by flooding from the heavy rains that came with the storm. In eastern Connecticut, high winds caused most of the damage, felling cornstalks and downing trees that in some cases blocked access to barns and other parts of farms.

Reviczky estimated that 30 percent of the feed corn dairy farmers grow for their cows was blown over, and it's unclear at this point how much farmers will be able to salvage.

Robin Chesmer, owner of Graywall Farms in Lebanon, estimated that he lost 100 of his 500 acres of feed corn. A more immediate concern on Monday, though, was getting a tree that fell across power lines cleared from the road that provides access to his dairy farm.

"We can't get through with a milk truck or a big feed truck," Chesmer said. "We have to get it cleared up. We have to feed our heifers."

Henry Talmage, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau, a nonprofit farmer advocacy organization, is concerned that the loss of feed corn will raise the price of replacement feed. "Feed corn prices are already inflated," he said. "Is that going to translate into higher milk prices? Probably. But almost certainly that won't mean a better bottom line for farmers."

Talmage noted that the state's tobacco crop, grown mostly in the Connecticut River Valley, also suffered substantial wind damage.

Dairy farmer Peter Orr, who owns Fort Hill Farm in Thompson, flew over his fields in a small plane Tuesday. "All of my fields have some damage," he said. "Some are totally knocked down. We definitely have some significant losses."

Orr said he's hoping some of the downed corn will be harvestable, but a special piece of equipment is required to get that done. He estimates he lost 30 percent of his crop.

On the positive side, Orr said, he's continued to ship milk from the farm without interruption. Both Orr and Chesmer, members of the Farmers Cow cooperative, milked their herds earlier than normal this weekend so they could send a shipment out before the storm arrived Sunday.

"Usually we milk our cows at 2 a.m., but we milked them at midnight on Sunday," Orr said.

An ice cream shop at Orr's farm remained open during the storm, operating on generator power and giving out free cones to town and emergency crews.

For Karen and Tom Scott, owners of Scott's Yankee Farmer in East Lyme, Monday morning mostly brought a sense of relief. While their sweet-corn stalks were toppled and some pumpkin plants were damaged by salt spray that blew up from Long Island Sound, most of their apple crop came through unscathed.

"There were a few apples that fell off, but it's not bad at all," Karen Scott said.

The timing of the storm, before most of the apples were ripe, meant the apples were more securely attached to the trees than they will be later in the season.

Some of the corn can be harvested off the fallen stalks, Scott said, and some of the other stalks could spring back upright. "It could have been a lot worse," she said.

The farm stand on Route 1 has been less busy than normal since the storm, however, as customers dealing with power outages either aren't coming in for fruits and vegetables or are buying only small quantities.

"They're buying what they can grill," Scotte said.

Paul Lemke, owner of Lemke Valley Farms in Glastonbury, is facing major losses of his vegetable crops due to flooding. Lemke sells his produce at farmers markets in New London, Waterford, Old Saybrook and Westbrook.

"We've got 3,000 heads of cabbage, 3,000 heads of broccoli, 3,000 heads of cauliflower, 2,000 brussels sprouts plants and 6,000 tomato plants under water," said Lemke, whose farm is about 50 feet from the banks of the Connecticut River. The river reached flood stage in Hartford and Middlesex counties Tuesday.

Lemke's sweet-corn crop was lost in the floodwaters. On Monday, workers picking beans had to stop suddenly when the floodwaters began rising.

"I just hope people come out (to the farmers markets) and buy what we've got left," said Lemke, who harvested as much corn, beets, peppers, tomatoes, cabbage and other crops as possible before the storm hit. Later summer and early fall, when the harvest peaks, is the crucial time for farm sales, he noted.

"It's a tremendous loss," Lemke said. "It takes the heart right out of you."

Losses varied widely from farm to farm, depending on elevation, proximity to swelling rivers and other factors, said Reviczky. "There are some farmers who are virtually unscathed," he said.

Both Reviczky and Talmage said they expect that after damage assessments are complete, an assistance plan for affected farmers will be developed, tapping state and federal resources.

j.benson@theday.com

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