Donors help Conn. farmer rebuild after winter snow

AP News
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Posted: Mar 08, 2011 7:53 PM
Donors help Conn. farmer rebuild after winter snow

For a time last month, Carole Miller feared that her 13-year-old herb and tomato farm in eastern Connecticut would be finished after a plastic-covered hoop house collapsed under the weight of snow and ice.

Miller, who will be 74 on Thursday, was not insured because she said the cost to insure the plastic building was too high.

But she now considers herself lucky after an online auction organized by a nearby farmers market and contributions by friends and acquaintances drew about $12,000 in donations to help her rebuild. People she has known for years in her community, agriculture associations and civic groups helped with donations.

"Anything I've ever been a part of came forward," she said. "I am truly, truly blessed."

Many other farmers in Connecticut aren't as fortunate. Ron Clark, farm loan manager at the U.S. Farm Service Agency in Norwich, said the agency's Connecticut offices have received numerous calls seeking information, but no farmers have yet applied for a loan. With snow still on the ground, they are assessing damage.

Farmers also are wary of taking on debt in a weak economic recovery, even at the FSA's relatively low 3.75 percent rate, Clark said. And like everyone else, farmers who are climbing out of the recession now face rapidly rising energy costs, he said.

The back-to-back snow storms in January that dumped nearly 7 feet of snow in much of Connecticut has only added to farmers' economic troubles, Clark said. Dairy farmers have faced historically low prices, though they are now beginning to increase, and rapidly rising energy prices are the next looming problem, he said.

"It's probably been as bad as I've seen it," Clark said.

More than 300 buildings on about 100 farms partially or totally collapsed due to heavy snow and ice. Those included barns, greenhouses, sheds and fabric-covered hoop houses. In addition to the loss of buildings, horses, cattle and egg-laying hens that were killed and equipment damaged or destroyed.

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.

Mike Millane of Millane Nurseries, which sells mostly to commercial operations such as cemeteries, towns and builders, said he lost 16 hoop houses that he estimates were valued at $100,000. He said he also lost irrigation pipes and sprinkler heads that were "not meant to take crushing ice" in addition to numerous plants.

The buildings were unheated and therefore uninsured and he's not sure whether his Cromwell business will qualify for federal help.

"We've never experienced anything like this before so we don't know what to expect," he said.

Jeff Lipton of Pleasant View Farms in Somers said three buildings that stored hay and equipment collapsed. Six remain.

Two buildings were insured, one fully and the other with what he said is just "a little insurance."

"Farms don't create enough income to pay insurance. You try to save where you can," Lipton said. "After you pay taxes and insurance, you're working for nothing."

Miller, meanwhile, said she plans to meet soon with contractors to rebuild her hoop house and begin the work as soon as possible. She's been growing under lights in her basement to start the season.

"I've always lived in the country and it's what I love to do. What you love to do doesn't often make you a lot of money but I'm the happiest I've been," she said.