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Dairies still recovering from storms Irene and Lee

PD Staff Writer Tony Okon Published on 06 December 2011

Muddy River Farm, like other Northeastern dairies impacted by strong Atlantic storms that brought heavy rains and flooding earlier this fall, continues to clean up while looking for relief.

Dairywoman Karli Johnson said the day before the first major storm – Hurricane Irene – was just like any other day at Muddy River Farm.



“We knew there could be strong winds and heavy rains and that there wasn’t much we could do to prepare,” Karli says.

However, she and her husband, Josh, thoroughly cleaned their tiestall barn of debris in case of flooding.

“We didn’t really have damages from Irene, and we are certainly thankful for that,” Karli says. Others weren’t so fortunate. Karli’s brother-in-law, who lives only a mile away from the Johnsons’ farm, saw powerful winds knock most of his crops over. Karli says rains from Irene saturated the ground.

About a week later, Tropical Storm Lee brought similar weather to the Johnsons’ farm.

“We knew another storm was coming and we heard various weather forecasts of how bad the storm would or wouldn’t be,” Karli says. “It just basically started raining, and raining, and raining.”


Saturated from the previous storm, the Johnsons’ ground wouldn’t absorb any more of the second storm’s beating rain. Water started to overtake their farm’s 600 acres of corn, soybeans and hay.

“Crops just started to disappear underwater,” Karli says. “Our corn was underwater, even over the tassels, and we’re talking about corn over 10 feet tall.”

Karli says her family didn’t fathom how bad the damage was until the next week. “We couldn’t even get to some of our fields because of the water; we just pretended like we weren’t worried and kept going.”

When they could finally inspect their fields, they realized they had lost everything.

“We thought the soybean pods would be sealed shut because they were still pretty green, but that wasn’t the case,” she says. Half of the Johnsons’ soybeans molded after flooding forced them underwater.

“On a year like this when corn and feed prices are so high, you’re really hoping for a good crop – everything looks great – and then you completely lose most of it,” Karli says.


The Johnsons have considered chopping the corn still upright in their field, drying it and bagging it to sell as fuel to people with a corn stove. “A lot of people around here are just chopping their corn and dumping it in hedge rows,” she says.

The Johnsons will plow their soybeans back into the soil after winter. Karli says the family is thankful and “lucky” they didn’t have any damage to their dairy’s facilities.

“Our tiestall barn sits on the other side of the road about a half-mile off the river, and we didn’t receive any damage there,” she explains.

Since the storms, the Johnsons have continued to milk their 85 Holstein and Jersey cows on the dairy. However, other dairies were more heavily damaged.

“Our situation really isn’t as bad as some of our neighbors, so we try not to complain about it,” Karli says.

For example, a friend of the Johnsons’, the Lloyds, who operate Maple Downs Farm about 45 minutes away from Muddy River Farm, lost more than 40 animals that drowned in floodwaters.

“I couldn’t even imagine what they went through that day,” Karli says.

The storms have changed how dairy farmers in the region would typically wrap up their year. This year farmers were still harvesting into late November.

Now the Johnsons leave the house at 5:30 a.m. to milk and salvage what crops they can. When they come home around 10 p.m., they figure out the best use for their flooded crops that still need to be harvested. They also worry about how they will survive financially.

The Johnsons purchased their farm three years ago and have a large mortgage to pay back.

“We have no crop insurance, so we just have to deal with that,” Karli says. The Johnsons are still trying to pencil out how they will start to pay back the bill for 2011’s spring crop seeds.

“It’s pretty lucky that you’ve found someone willing to talk about the storm damages, because we’ve been so busy planning what we’re going to do, and most other farmers are doing the same.

It’s hard when you’re coming off a low milk price year [in 2009] and trying really hard to make money to pay down your bills and you lose a lot of what would have been profits,” she says. “The cows are healthy, the babies are healthy, and we’ll keep going forward and that’s all we can really do.”

Relief assistance
Karli says the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) will replace 50 percent of the crops lost and replaced in September through October.

“The deal by the USDA’s FSA is certainly better than nothing, but for us, it didn’t work out as well,” Karli says. The Johnsons really needed the income from selling crops to other farmers.

“We didn’t replace them for two reasons. One, because there’s no corn around to replace it with and, two, because we didn’t have the money to replace the crops.”

Karli says she believes a lot of people are in a similar situation. “The Lloyd family had hardly any feed left because of the flood and they would have gotten 50 percent back on whatever they had purchased.”

In the Johnsons’ case, they didn’t need feed immediately, so they didn’t replace any September through October.

Jim Putnam, spokesman for Farm Credit East , a financial service group for farms in the Northeast, says a lot of employees from Farm Credit East reached out and helped with customers in the local communities in the immediate aftermath. “One of our branches also hosted a fundraiser barbecue to help assist some victims.”

Putnam says a group of employees put together a program called Farm Credit East Cares. “Our view was to try to assist the affected families with personal losses and to have a little extra cash in their pocket and hopefully they have insurance for their other major losses,” Putnam explains.

“Our board of directors here at Farm Credit East put up $100,000, our partner Co-Bank in Denver matched that and a number of our employees made personal contributions too,” Putnam states.

Farmers in the affected area can contact Farm Credit East and apply for a $500 grant, which the Johnsons did.

The CEO of Farm Credit East, Bill Lipinski, said that many hardworking farm families have suffered tremendously as a result of the Irene and Lee disasters. It will take years for many of these families to recover. “We are pleased to provide this support to help families have a better holiday season.” PD