The USDA estimates that 6,000 West Virginia farmers suffered damage as a result of the flooding in late June. Farmers lost over $3 million worth of crops, livestock, and fencing. But more than the monetary cost- there’s also an emotional toll that’s affecting some of these farmers. One couple in Greenbrier County says they almost gave up after losing two dozen of their rabbits, and all of their vegetable crops, in the high water.
Caroline Smith is smiling as she holds a tiny charcoal-colored bunny close to her chest.
This bunny was part of a litter that was born just 2 weeks after the flood. It’s mother was one of the few females to survive.
Another survivor rabbit is a plump silver bunny named Joplin who managed to swim, or float, fifty feet from her cage during the flood. Caroline and her husband Michael Buttrill raise these meat rabbits on their small farm, called Bootstraps Farm, located in an area of Greenbrier County that’s heavily logged.
Caroline and Michael admit that farming hasn’t been the most lucrative career path. They invested about $140,000 into the land and equipment. They’re able to scrape by and pay the bills partly because Caroline works two part time jobs off the farm. They’ve put all of their savings and most of their free time into this farm. Then in June, they lost it all to the flood.
“It’s been extremely difficult. These are the most challenging things we’ve ever been through, easily,” said Michael Buttrill.
Michael and Caroline were spending a rare weekend out of town at a family reunion when waters began to rise. Back at home, their neighbor drowned, and their farm was submerged in water.
Michael says their friends called and tried to prepare them for what lay ahead.
“I thought, ok, I’ll prepare myself, I’ll expect the worst and hope for the best as you try to do. I tried to think about the worst and it didn’t even come close. Our valley was the Mississippi river for about three hours, and our lives were in between the banks. “
Michael and Caroline lost thousands of dollars in tools and equipment. Their greenhouse- gone. The topsoil in their garden was washed down the valley.
But worst of all, Michael says he almost lost his will to farm.
“I expect this to happen again in 50 years. And I kind of feel foolish now. You know, I feel like...why...am I living here? Why am I building this organic farm in a drainpipe? And I don’t want to feel that way.. but you got to face the facts.”
Rick Snuffer is the state executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) in West Virginia. He’s talked with farmers who, like Michael, have been beaten down by this flood.
His agency has requested $3 million from the federal government to help compensate farmers who lost livestock, crops, fencing in the floods. But that money has not been released yet. Snuffer says they hope to being granting compensation to farmers in about a month.
Out-of-state farmers have also pitched in to help. Many are offering hay and animal feed to support West Virginia farmers. The FSA is working to coordinate those donations to farmers whose animals need food this winter.
A month after the flood, a FSA employee visited Michael and Caroline on Bootstrap farm. The assistance worker helped Michael fill out a claim to help pay for some of their losses. Michael and Caroline also received a $500 check from Farm Aid.
Still, the biggest help came from a go fund me campaign that their friends started online. Michael says it’s giving them more than just money. “There was a time there right after the flood when I thought, I’m moving, I’m giving up. But I said, all these people believe in what we’re doing. I can’t give up. I’m gonna stay.”
So Bootstraps farm is starting to come back. Caroline and Michael have replanted their garden, and as long as they don’t get an early frost, they’re hoping to be able to sell vegetables throughout the autumn harvest. And they’ve learned from this flood. They’ve moved their rabbit hutches higher in the air, and they hope that next time, they’ll be able to protect their bunnies from flood waters.