MIDDLEBURGH, N.Y. – After being battered by flooding last year, farmers across the Northeast and Midwest can at least be thankful that a relatively warm and largely snowless winter has made it easier to get started healing their rutted and debris-strewn lands.
In the Midwest it was swollen rivers fed by huge mountain snowpacks and spring rain, and in the Northeast it was back-to-back tropical storms Irene and Lee.
For David and Denise Lloyd, of Middleburgh, N.Y., the weather has helped as they plowed under hundreds of acres of feed corn that had been just ready for cutting. First they had to pick the debris out of the fields and repair tractors swamped by 8 to 10 feet of muddy water from upstate New York's Schoharie Creek during tropical storm Irene.
"All our equipment was underwater," Denise said.
The couple still is dealing with changes in the chemical makeup of the soil that will require costly treatment before planting.
Beth Kennett, her husband, Bob, and sons Tom and David operate Vermont's Liberty Hill Farm, where some fields were simply washed away and others covered in silt, mud, gravel and rocks by the flooded White River during tropical storm Irene.
"The mild weather this fall really helped us with beginning the cleanup," Kennett said.
Tree limbs, old tires, TV sets and other items had to be pulled out by hand before plows could be sent into fields.
Frost, frozen ground and snow would usually have shut the farm down by the end of October, but work continued until the turn of the year, Kennett said. The family was helped by volunteers.
"The last couple of weeks of December we had people working with excavators to move the mud and sand away from the barns," said Kennett, noting that plenty of work remains.
The Kennetts have also been able to plant winter rye, which prevents erosion and enriches the soil, on a couple of fields.
"And it came up because we had such mild weather," Kennett said. "It was nice to see a little green."
Gene Gantz, a U.S. Department of Agriculture educational specialist whose territory covers 12 states from Maryland to Maine, said some farmers who cultivate river bottoms along the Susquehanna and other waterways in Pennsylvania don't know if their fields remain because the land is still underwater or covered in muck. That has prevented an assessment of lost acreage and a determination of whether the soil is contaminated.
In Massachusetts' fertile Pioneer Valley, 6,300 acres on a dozen farms around the confluence of the Deerfield and Connecticut rivers were damaged during the storms Irene and Lee, said Scott Soares, the state's agriculture commissioner.
On one farm, 30 acres of rich soil, 4- to 10-feet deep, was "pushed to the other side of the farm," he said.
Some of the fields of sandy loam were reduced to cobble and stones, and others were covered in silt the texture of talcum powder. "It looked like a sand pit," Soares said.
Farmers are "accustomed to working with nature and they were at it the next day," he said. "It's recovering not just a field, but an heirloom of that family."
The cost of restoring the fields runs about $8,000 to $10,000 an acre, Soares said.
On Jan. 18, the USDA released $63 million to help repair farmland and associated property in 23 states and Puerto Rico damaged by flooding and hurricanes last year. Congress approved the money in November as part of an agricultural bill delayed by political wrangling.
That left farmers waiting for help from local governments facing budget difficulties. Massachusetts and Connecticut rejiggered grant programs to give damaged farms priority but didn't allocate new money. Neither did Vermont, where the Agriculture Department helped distribute money donated to Vermont Community Foundation's Farm Disaster Fund.
New York farmers got a quick shot of emergency assistance from the state agriculture department, with about $5 million out of an eventual package of $15 million earmarked for cleanup, conservation and repairs, said Darrel Aubertine, a farmer and New York's agriculture commissioner. That money went to 350 farms in 25 counties and "really was a hardcore effort to do all we could."
The Lloyds got about $72,500. Richard Ball, who farms nearby, began recovering with about $65,000 provided through Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration.
"We're OK. It's been an odd winter," said Ball, whose vegetable crops were flattened and who saw damage to about 200 acres due to Irene and Lee. "We've generally been able get a lot done with the weather. We healed our land."
Ball said the fields were smoothed, ruts and divots filled, debris removed and seeds set.
In the Midwest, many farmers along the flood-ravaged Missouri River have been unable to take advantage of the mild winter because their levees aren't fixed. The USDA is making money available, but if farmers in some areas fix the flood damage while the levees are still broken and the land is damaged again, they either have to repair the land without the USDA's help or return the money the agency originally provided.
Associated Press writer Heather Hollingsworth contributed to this report from Kansas City, Mo.