Flood Memories Still Fresh, Southern Tier Farm Moves Forward
by Melissa Bravo
From www.lancasterfarming.com on Apr 8, 2016
The historical accounts of the settlement of Nichols, N.Y., describe the south bank of the Susquehanna River in the vicinity of the mouth of the Wappasening Creek as a broad and fertile plain. It was known to European settlers in the late 1700s as some of the most productive land in the region.
This is the same land where the first of five generations of Engelberts moved in 1911. The German family arrived in America in 1848 and spent 18 years farming in the Conklin area before moving to Nichols.
When the Susquehanna River flooded on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1936, it was considered one of the worst floods in 100 years. The Susquehanna River Basin reported the river rose to a height of 21.40 feet near Waverly. A flood of such magnitude was unheard of then. The result was that levees were built to protect Nichols.
Another 100-year record was shattered 36 years later when the river flooded after Hurricane Agnes hit in June 1972, cresting to 21.24 feet.
Thirty-three years would go by before the Susquehanna River rose that high again. Two spring storms coupled with snow melt resulted in a crest of 20.88 feet on April 3, 2005. The following year, when the jet stream stalled over the region on June 29, 2006, a storm system dumped 4 to 6 inches of rain near Nichols and up to 8 inches a few miles to the east. The Susquehanna River at Bainbridge reportedly crested to 27.14 feet, which was considered a 500-year flood.
In Broome County, thousands of people were evacuated from the submerged village of Conklin, the same village the Engelberts once farmed 140 years earlier.
Just five years later, on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011, Tropical Storm Lee stalled over the Nichols area. Fifteen inches of rain fell in some areas but up to 18 inches fell near Nichols. It caused the river to rise to 26.67 feet in nearby Waverly and 32.75 feet in Bloomsburg.
“It came through like a Tsunami,” said Lisa Englebert, as she recalled the day when a wall of water came roaring down Wappasening Creek.
Her memories of that event paint a vivid picture of the destruction a flash flood can have on the day-to-day operation of a working farm. “Hurricane Irene had gone through the previous week and dropped about 4 inches of rain. Between then and Sept. 7, another 3 inches of rain fell, leaving the ground saturated,” she said.
But no one expected the flood of water yet to come from Tropical Storm Lee.
“Debris had jammed up underneath the Route 282 Bridge south of Nichols near the Pa. border, and when it broke loose it tore out a 50-foot swath along the north side of the river and sent the raging river water in their direction. When the river crested, we had 12 feet of water in and around our barns,” she said.
Imagine 300-400 acres, including a milkhouse, parlor, pastures, houses and all low-lying crop fields inundated with the mud and debris of a creek run wild.
“Initially, the flash flooding from the creek is what caused the most damage to our farm/equipment because we couldn’t get things moved. But later that day, the Susquehanna River came up and inundated the farm again and all the fields in the flood plain. It was all we could do to save the cattle and calves,” she said. “Our sons had just finished milking that morning and the certified organic herd of 100 head was out on the pasture. They had gone to breakfast and were listening and checking the weather alerts, but no warnings had been posted. But when we went back to the barn to start moving things to higher ground, the water was already coming in. By the time we got some of the calves out, the cows were surrounded by water in the pasture.”
Thankfully, once they had moved the cows to higher ground, the men were able to rescue the rest of the calves.
The aftermath of the 2011 flood was life-changing.
“It looked like a bomb went off,” she said. Some 1,800 bales of first-, second- and third-cutting baleage were destroyed in the flood along with several hundred dry bales and one silo of soybeans. “The corn was swelling in the bottom of the heifer silo during clean up and making this awful banging noise. We immediately evacuated the barn until they could stabilize the structure.”
When a college friend of her husband’s came to visit weeks later, she and her husband, Kevin, joked, “Welcome to our nightmare.”
Lisa Engelbert said she gives her sons a lot of credit for persevering.
“It was their first year as full-time operators of the farm,” she said.
Her older son, Joe, was 26 at the time and married with two little girls at home. His brother, John, then 22, had just graduated from Alfred University.
“They put out an APB and help started arriving. But it was difficult for people to get to us; all the bridges were out,” she said.
But help did arrive. She said that so many people came to help out that she couldn’t even begin to put a number on it.
“A group of Mennonites from Dundee-Penn Yan area came right away and knew just what needed to be done,” she said. Just gathering up all the plastic wrap from the ruined bales was a full-time task. Other certified organic farmers brought in load after load of certified feed.
“The cows didn’t get milked for four days so we did have to dump some milk once we were able to start milking again,” she said. Luckily, they were able to take them up the hill to Rob Moore’s farm, another certified organic operation.
“They were up there for three weeks before we had the milkhouse and parlor cleaned up and a new well drilled. They did have to cull about 35 head and lost 15 calves to pneumonia, but it could have been much, much worse,” she said. “We couldn’t even turn them out on pasture until the following spring. The flood surge left behind 5 inches of mud everywhere and now when it rains, it gets pretty muddy around here.” No matter where you go on their farm now, when it rains, the silty loam left behind by the floodwaters is a reminder of the power of the river. “All of the equipment had to be pressure-washed, torn apart and put back together again to get the mud out. It was a never-ending process,” she said.
Today, the operation is bigger than ever. Lisa Engelbert’s sons jumped right in and rebuilt. While the family’s house was not damaged, other structures on the property had to be torn down. It was a situation that was repeated over and over again throughout the valley.
The town of Owego was hard hit. More than 95 percent of the buildings in Owego were inundated with water that day. Even today, many homes and businesses in the town stand empty.
“Everything our sons have done since then has been with flood mitigation in mind. A new free-stall barn was built and they are milking almost 200 head now,” she said, adding that the cows recovered quickly. She credits their quick recovery to the high-quality organic feed and holistic treatment. “They were a healthy herd before the flood hit and that made all the difference.”
The Engelberts were even able to reopen their certified meat and cheese retail store one month after the flood.
“We lost the coolers and the meat freezer but we got the product out before the water came in,” she said.
If it does flood again, and it probably will, the Engelberts have taken steps to be better prepared. They stopped storing all their hay in the flood plain and now have two new bunker silos on higher ground.
“We store all of the baleage a mile down the road where it is up out of the flood plain,” she said.
Despite the flood debris on the fields, the land has not been gouged out by the floodwaters.
“Cornell Cooperative Extension tested the fields for heavy metals, petroleum products, and everything came back negative, so we were able to get back on the fields the next year,” she said.
Another preventative measure they took was to fill the bottom of three existing silos with 5 feet of concrete.
“Hopefully that is enough to keep the feed above the river the next time,” she said.
Joe and John Engelbert’s long-term plan is to build a new facility on the other side of the Wappasening Creek, up out of the flood plain. In the meantime, they are still cleaning up from the flood. There are still ruined bales by a pasture along Route 17 on the east bank of the Wappasening Creek that they are working on removing.
“It was so wet and muddy for several years that they could not reach the bales. Our sons have just recently been able to start cleaning up some of those bales,” Lisa Engelbert said. “The plastic will be disposed of and the ruined baleage will be spread back on the fields.
“To us, organic is all about integrity.”
Engelbert Farms, LLC is a true FAMILY FARM!
Certified Organic by Vermont Organic Farmers
ENGELBERT FARMS, LLC
Kevin and Lisa Engelbert & Family
182 Sunnyside Road
Nichols, NY 13812
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