By Michael Cooper
SOUTH ROYALTON, Vt. — As soon as the news of the disaster at the Perley Farm began to spread — how the fast-rising waters of the White River had washed away nearly 200 bales of hay, flooded the farmhouse and then swept some of the cows down the river to their deaths — neighbors and strangers alike began arriving at the muddy barn here to offer help.
Some of the Perley Farm cows showed signs of their ordeal almost a week after the flood.
Agriculture students from Vermont Technical College showed up with shovels and began digging. A couple from Hartland, Vt., brought a wheelbarrow and mucked out the barn, and then returned a few days later with a homemade lasagna. A couple from New Hampshire brought grain to feed the surviving cows and wood shavings to line the barn.
“My husband and I, we’re people that give, you know — we’ve never had to be on the receiving end,” said Penny Severance, who runs the farm with her husband, Larry, for its owner, Harland Perley, 81, whose family has had it for a century. “So it’s really hard. We’re so grateful.”
“We had people that came down with shovels because there was no way out here,” she said, fighting back tears. “The road was totally cut off. And people walked in with shovels and were like, ‘We’re here, what can we do?’ Then we had the calf barn, the back where the heifers are, our silo room, our grain room was just full of muck. And they just cleaned it out for us.”
The flooding unleashed a week ago Sunday by the remnants of Hurricane Irene played havoc with farms across Vermont. Rushing waters left fields of silt-caked cornstalks matted down on their sides. Farmers are still checking to see what vegetables and flowers can be saved.
But for livestock farmers — especially the dairy farmers who are a symbol of Vermont — the toll has been more gut-wrenching, and the crisis has lasted longer, as they have struggled to take care of their animals.
With power out in many places, some dairy farmers could not operate the machines they use to milk their cows. Smaller farms relied on volunteers to milk them the old-fashioned way. Others got their hands on generators to run their machines. The cows needed to be milked, but with dairy pickups halted in many parts of the state because the roads were inaccessible, some farmers were forced to dump thousands of dollars worth of milk.
Then there was the emotional toll of losing animals.
Of the farm’s 65 cows, about two dozen are still missing.
Mr. Perley had only come back to the farm the night before with his nieces after a long trip to New Jersey, where he had visited relatives and had a pacemaker installed. “We didn’t expect that we’d be coming out in a boat, but we did,” he said in a telephone interview from New Jersey, where he returned after the flood.
The outpouring of help has moved Mr. Perley and the Severance family. Some heard about them through word of mouth. Others read about their plight in The Valley News. Others offered assistance after the farm asked for help on Vermont Public Radio and on a Web site called #VTResponse, which was created after the storm as a sort of Twitter-age version of the venerable Swopper’s Column in Yankee Magazine, connecting volunteers and supplies with the flood victims who needed them.
“We are in desperate need of 16% pellets for cows whose food will run out tonight,” read one post on the Web site. The next day, people arrived with feed for the cows.
As the Severances continued the cleanup on Friday, Tamara Burke, a sheep farmer from Mansfield, Vt., pulled up in her pickup truck (license plate: EWEHAUL) with wood shavings, new wire fencing and a gate.
“I know that there’s a tremendous amount of need,” said Ms. Burke, who had visited several farms. “Because people hadn’t brought their second-cut hay in, even if your barn escaped, your hay was on the ground. So we don’t have a whole lot of hay, and unfortunately we need hay.”
The days have been long for the Severances. “We’ve been working until about midnight every night here trying to do stuff and go home, and we’re up by 5 o’clock in the morning — and that’s late for us, because my husband, sometimes he’s down here at 3 o’clock in the morning on a normal day — and we start all over again,” Ms. Severance said.
“It’s been amazing, the support from the community we’ve gotten,” she said. “It really is. People are like, ‘What are you going to do?’ And I say, ‘What are we supposed to do, just throw our hands up and say the heck with it?’ This is our life. Of course we’ve got to keep farming.”