Flooding, Clean-Up Efforts Spread Invasive Plants

10/03/11 7:34AM By Melody Bodette
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VPR/Melody Bodette
At Small Step Farm in Waitsfield, Jillian Abraham's fields are seeing new growth of Japanese knotweed, spread either in fill brought onto the property or flood water.

(Host) Tropical Storm Irene's floods moved a lot of soil. And now heavy machinery used in reconstruction has done the same thing.

And as VPR's Melody Bodette reports, that could cause big problems for farmland because there are invasive plants in the soil.

(Host) Small Step Farm in Waitsfield is nestled in a curve in the Mad River.

At the height of the storm, water flowed 8 feet deep on the property, knocking out Jillian Abraham's 3 acres of vegetables and bringing 2 feet of silt and sand into her greenhouses.

(Abraham) "You can see some cabbage sticking up over there."

(Bodette) Abraham lost $46,000 in equipment. And $25,000 in vegetables were swept away or had to be destroyed because they touched floodwater.

After volunteers helped clean up, and heavy equipment started leveling the land, Abraham noticed another problem.

(Abraham) "I was in the shed over there raking out gravel, and I was like, ‘What is all of that sprouting in the field?' And then I was like, ‘Oh, wow.' And it was just a teeny, tiny, one-inch pieces and now it's grown to like a foot with all the sun and rain we've been having. So I have to do something pretty fast."

(Bodette) The red and green leaves are sprouting up everywhere, even in the greenhouses. Abraham recognized the plant immediately by its heart-shaped leaves. Japanese Knotweed is a fast-growing invasive plant:

(Abraham) "Normally it's along the river banks. It's everywhere. And so for the past day, I've been researching knotweed and what you can do at a young growth."

(Bodette) The plant is not poisonous, and tastes a bit like rhubarb:

(Abraham) "I've made a knotweed pie before."

(Bodette) But there's no demand for it. And Abraham says it crowds out vegetables that customers do want:

(Abraham) "I couldn't imagine trying to grow salad mix when I have knotweed pulling up. Even if you cut it, it's going to re-grow."

(Bodette) It's hard to get rid of knotweed. Just a small piece of the plant will sprout new growth that grows up to 5 feet tall. And it quickly colonizes newly disturbed soil.

Even if herbicides are sprayed, it can take a year to kill the plant. And while Small Step is not certified organic, Abraham says the restaurants and stores that are the farm's customers don't want chemicals.

(Abraham) "I sell at organic prices, and my practices are organic."

(Bodette)  Abraham doesn't know if the knotweed was spread by the water or heavy machinery that was on the property. Abraham leases the land and is weighing whether, after the financial losses and now the knotweed, it makes sense to continue farming this land:

(Abraham) "I was told to walk away, just walk away basically from that property for vegetable farming. It's just the reality, can we really handpick every single one of these pieces out? Even if we did it five times."

(Bodette) But she's going to try to dig the knotweed and hopes to be farming again next year.

VPR/Melody Bodette
Japanese knotweed is a fast-growing plant which crowds out natives species. It's very difficult to control because plants can grow from small pieces of roots or other plant material.
(UVM students) "So anyone recognize this plant?"

(Bodette) At the University of Vermont's Centennial Woods, Sharon Plumb of the Nature Conservancy is working with students to map invasive plants.

Plumb says Small Step Farm is just one of the stories she's heard about invasive plants popping up since the storm. Another was at a natural area in Richmond:

(Plumb) "This area that we're trying to restore, there's a lot of knotweed, and there are chunks of the buffer of that river that are just gone. So there are populations of knotweed that are smaller now, because the soil and the knotweed moved downstream. But it's going to end up somewhere."

(Bodette) Plumb says landowners, especially farmers should be careful when bringing fill onto their property:

(Plumb) "Irene moved a massive amount of material naturally. And now you have a lot of construction type work right now where people are bringing fill in. And there's zero check to see that that fill is clean. I often see new populations of knotweed next to new culverts."

(Bodette) And knotweed and other invasive such as garlic mustard can take over riverbanks, creating poor habitat. And they can cause more erosion because they don't hold river banks as well as native plants.

For VPR News, I'm Melody Bodette.



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