FARMINGTON — The damage from whipping wind and torrential rain brought into the state by Tropical Storm Irene Sunday is being felt by farmers, who woke up Monday to find ripening fruit blown to the ground, apple trees snapped off, and fields of hay and vegetables coated with silt left behind by receding flood waters.
“This was a very serious weather event. I can't remember damage this extensive since the hurricanes of 1954,” said L. Herbert “Bussie” York, whose family owns Sandy River Farm in Farmington.
That year, two back-to-back powerful hurricanes, Carol and Edna, tore up the East Coast on Aug. 30 and Sept. 2, respectively, leaving behind loss of life and millions of dollars in damages to property and agricultural land in Maine alone.
“I was in high school then and I remember we had acres and acres of sweet corn completely flattened,” he said.
The Yorks' farm stands on the rich land along the Sandy River, where flooding is not uncommon in the low areas. But the extent of the damage from Irene has York concerned.
A portion of his lucrative soybean crop was underwater, sweet corn stalks were knocked down, his winter squash field inundated, and the fragile river banks that border his fields further eroded from the swollen Sandy.
“I haven't had a chance to assess everything yet. It is just too wet to get out there,” he said.
Harry Ricker of Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner said there are still plenty of good apples left growing on his 350 acres of fruit trees but he estimates 10 to 15 percent are on the ground.
“Of more concern to me is the number of trees that were tipped over in the wind. One-third of them are 7-year-olds and had a lot of apples,” he said.
There were also older trees whose roots held firm but about 5 percent of these were snapped off in the 50-mile-per-hour winds. He said on Monday, his crews were out staking the toppled trees in an effort to save them.
“If you lose apples this year, you can make it up next year. If you lose a tree, you lose a part of your operation,” he said.
Another concern is bruising apples may have sustained as the wind buffeted them against branches and other maturing fruits.
“We will know the extent of that damage in a day or two,” he said.
The farm also sells organic apples, has five acres in high bush blueberries, and 14 acres in cranberries. Ricker estimated about 15 to 20 percent of the remaining blueberries were on the ground.
He is still upbeat about the 2011 apple season. “We are opening this weekend for u-pick apples, and we want people to know, we have plenty.”
At David and Verna Pike's farm along the Sandy River in West Farmington, flooding submerged their field of pumpkins, rain soaked his ripening, “day-neutral” strawberries, and their sweet corn field was underwater. David Pike said the corn is not a loss since they fortunately finished harvesting the last of the crop on Saturday.
He will wait and see about his strawberries.
“We pick day-neutrals until November, and I expect at the next picking, we'll lose some,” he said of the strawberries with an extended growing season.
As for the floating pumpkins?
“This is the new method to harvest pumpkins,” he joked in an e-mail. “Like cranberries, you flood the field to bring the fruit to the top and sluice them into a truck.”
At Boothby's Orchard in Livermore, Robert Boothby credited the minimal loss of apples to the trellis system he uses to support his trees.
“Overall, we didn't do too bad. There were a few three-year-old trees that were busted off but out of 3,000, that's not bad,” he said.
Gary Raymond, the executive director of the Franklin County Farm Service Agency, a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is compiling an assessment of the agricultural damage left by Irene.
He spent the day Monday catching up with farmers and people in the wood products industry. Transporting logs and wood chips up and down Route 27 is disrupted now that the swollen Carrabassett River washed out two bridges.
Raymond said farmers have reported lost crops of hay and vegetables, fencing destroyed in the flooding, loose cattle, erosion of farmland and fruit loss in orchards.
“There will also be problems with farmers being able to get on their fields that are littered with blow-downs and debris,” he said.
“But it could have been worse,” he said.