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A Statement of Purpose and our Way Forward

November 10, 2019

Maple Wind Farm: A Statement of Purpose and our Way Forward

Farmers’ Note: In the wake of our recent Halloween flood loss, we have been moved to think deeply about what we do and why we do it.  We are heartbroken that so many chickens and turkeys were lost. And even more heartbroken by the negative feedback we have received. At the same time we are buoyed by the incredible outpouring of support from our community.  For those that seek to understand, we want to make a clear statement about what occurred, clarify our purpose and declare our intention to move forward.

At Maple Wind Farm, we approach growing food in a radically different way. In fact, it’s so different that our way of farming represents less than 1% of the country’s food production. We have created high standards for our operation, and it is defined in our mission: To promote the health and welfare of our community by providing the highest-quality pasture-raised products, through regenerating soil and water resources. We farm because we care about the people in our community, the water and living soil, and the animals who give their lives to feed people.

On our farm, all grazing animals move to new pasture each day. They leave manure behind and gain nutritional benefits from the plants, seeds and insects that inhabit our diverse pastures. In return, they regenerate soil by trampling, mixing and adding biologically active fertility to the ground they cover. Our animals get to express exactly what they are -- cows munch living grass, chickens scratch the soil, peck and pounce on insects, while our pigs hog down on clover and seek hidden delectables beneath the soil surface. As the animals are doing that, bacteria and fungi break it all down and distribute the nutrients to the plants that need them. When we eat the nutrient-dense meat and eggs that come from these moving and foraging animals, we find the energy and inspiration to care for this abundant living natural system.

Farming this way is hard: weather and field conditions, labor needs, the use of specially designed shelters and equipment make a daily-move system more difficult than more conventional methods. We are constantly balancing our desire to allow animals to live according to their nature with our responsibility to keep them as safe and stress free as possible. Yet we know when you work within nature there are always risks. Our animals are exposed to the unpredictable whims of the natural world, from predators and disease pathogens, to wind, fire, snow, ice, rain, drought, and flood. We strive to not only work within this powerful natural system, but to enhance it. We do our best to protect what we value: moving animals daily, installing electric fence and training livestock guard dogs to keep predators at bay; and building moveable shelters that can open wide in the heat and close down in cold, wind or rain. We also protect soil and plants by allowing pastures to fully recover before grazing again. Still the risks exist, and they come with our commitment to farm.

Halloween day the NOAA Weather Service presented us with a concerning forecast: 2” of rain, a flood watch, and a high wind warning. We had 3,600 chickens and 280 turkeys in their mobile shelters in various fields along the Winooski River. Having lived through several dozen storms with similar forecasts over the last 20 years (and at least three this season, none of which resulted in flooding), we faced the choice to either completely evacuate the shelters and put all those birds in our barns and brooders, or move them to higher ground within their pastures and anchor them against the wind. In past seasons we have evacuated large groups of birds in the face of severe weather events and we know that the stress on both birds and staff has been high. Our responsibility was to balance the stress of crating the birds and trailer them to higher shelters (a drill we know well) with the very low (perceived) likelihood that a truly severe flood or wind event would occur. After evaluating the risks, we determined that the 50 MPH winds posed the greatest threat to our flock and that the rain would be manageable. At that point we made the decision to keep our birds in the pastures, moved to higher ground and protected against the wind. It was the best decision we could have made at the time.

For about half of those birds, this was the right choice. They weathered the storm with no ill effects, though the flood waters came close. The other half of our flock was not so lucky as a massive influx of water inundated our Bottomland pasture (5 ft deep in some areas).  We remain shocked and heartbroken at the loss, and that day will forever live in our memory as one of our worst days in farming.

So what actually happened? Rainfall totals of 4-5” fell directly over our part of the Winooski River watershed and elsewhere in a very short period of time. Starting at midnight on Halloween night, the Winooski River rose 12 feet in a little over 6 hours.  According to river height data for the Winooksi at Waterbury (just 15 miles upstream), this was the 5th highest the river had been since 2010 (when data at that location was first recorded). Downstream at Essex Junction Halloween was in the top 20 worst floods (and the worst since 2011), and the Essex gauge has been recording data since the 1920s. Yet there were no warnings that would suggest we were about to be inundated with such a historic flood. It caught everyone by surprise, including the forecasters and homeowners who awoke to flooded houses and stranded cars. 

In the final analysis, we wish the information we had about the severity of the storm had been more accurate in order to have made a different decision. Imagine checking on your animals at 6:00 pm, knowing that they were well protected from the forecasted wind and high enough in the field to be protected from 2" of rain, and then waking the next morning, just 12 hours later to find that 4 feet of water had inundated our field. The water rose so rapidly and with so little warning that there was nothing we could do.

Like many farmers before us, we took a hit from Mother Nature that has shaken us. We have spent the days since our loss contemplating what we could have done. That contemplation will continue through the fall and winter, and will impact our decisions in the spring. But we do know this: we will continue to be the 1% who farm in a radically different way. We will always do our best to make the right decisions for all the living things in our broad community. We embrace the responsibility to feed our neighbors despite the risks. We believe that you deserve to know that the food you eat was raised by farmers who care about the health and welfare of their animals, land and people. We are honored to be your farmers; offering the best pasture-raised meats you can trust. We hope that you continue to support us in this commitment as we move forward.

Bruce Hennessey

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