HARTFORD, Conn. – For Northeastern farmers long used to coping with all sorts of cold-weather problems, this winter presents a new one: snow and ice that's bringing down outbuildings, requiring costly repairs, killing livestock and destroying supplies.
Farmers in Connecticut alone have lost at least 136 barns, greenhouses, sheds and other structures as snow measured in feet, not inches, accumulated while January passed without a thaw.
"We've had other challenges," said Joe Greenbacker, a partner at Brookfield Farm in Durham, where a fabric-covered "hoop house" caved in and killed a calf. "But this is the most snow I can remember on the ground and the biggest problem with roof issues I can remember."
Losses still are being totaled by the state Agriculture Department. Commissioner Steven Reviczky says no one can remember a more destructive winter.
The Northeast is suffering through one of its most brutal winters in years, with cities all along the seaboard reporting snow piling up at a record-setting pace. Connecticut has been especially hard-hit, with Hartford reporting 81 inches since Dec. 1, compared with an average of 46 inches, according to the National Weather Service.
A huge storm that swept in from the Plains this week proved to be a tipping point, dropping heavy ice and sopping rain that coated or soaked into snow piled on rooftops. Houses and commercial buildings crumbled, along with farm buildings, which tend be older or less sturdy.
In the Northeast's short season for growing, winter woes are no stranger to farmers. They're used to having to, say, turn on sprinklers to beat back a late frost on their strawberries.
"That happens every now and again," Reviczky said. "But this is a situation where buildings are coming down. This is way outside the box of what is a normal challenge."
No human deaths have been reported, but animals haven't been so lucky. In Northumberland, N.Y., 25 cows were killed and 200 rescued when one side of a barn's 400-foot-long peaked roof collapsed Wednesday night.
In Connecticut, 85,000 chickens were killed when a coop collapsed and 14 dairy cows and the Brookfield calf were killed, including seven cows lost when two buildings collapsed at a farm in Ellington, Reviczky said.
In Somers, two horses at Lindy Farm were euthanized after being trapped in rubble from an overnight barn collapse caused by heavy snowfall Jan. 27. International trotting star Moni Maker survived along with 12 other horses.
A wing that was not damaged housed 15 pregnant mares ready to deliver in a month, said John Belskie, a manager at Lindy Farm.
He could not explain why the barn, which was built in 2000, collapsed while older barns remained standing. But he noted that it could have been worse — a few hours later employees would have been inside, feeding the horses.
Besides the loss of structures and animals, the contents of many buildings — seed, fertilizer and other supplies — have been ruined, Reviczky said.
Greenbacker and other farmers have not yet begun to turn to their insurance policies to determine what's covered and what isn't.
"We haven't got that far yet," Greenbacker said. "Right now we're in the mode of keeping things together and making sure we don't have further problems."
Hoop houses — typically a half-cylinder of fabric or plastic supported by a metal skeleton — are moneysaving alternatives to traditional barns and fared well in previous winters because snow melted between storms.
But they're typically covered by material that won't rip, transferring the weight to the structural supports, said John Bartok, a retired greenhouse and nursery engineering professor at the University of Connecticut. Engineers recommend two-by-fours propping up the skeleton in strategic spots.
A 1978 blizzard rivaled this winter's storms, possibly bringing down more greenhouses, he said.
But Brookfield Farm, established in Connecticut in 1723, hasn't seen anything like this winter since moving to Durham in 1983. It has weathered drought, floods, pests and other problems well known to farmers.
"Now," Greenbacker said, "it's a storm every few days."