After Irene, Vermont shows us what climate resilience looks like

Three years after Tropical Storm Irene turned their fields into lakes and their cows into swimmers, the owners of Liberty Hill Farm are planting sunflowers, creating beauty where they once saw devastation.

Beth Kennett’s eyes still flood with tears as she and her husband, Bob, recall the volunteers — strangers, mostly — who streamed into town during the late summer of 2011 to help save its last remaining dairy farm. With well over a million dollars’ worth of damage, “our farm wouldn’t exist” without volunteer labor, Beth says.

With its iconic red barn and the graphic punch of black and white cows against kelly green fields, Liberty Hill Farm is everything you envision when you picture a family farm. Nestled between steep hills along the White River in central Vermont, the 240-acre property is home to 270 Holstein cows. Everyone helps: the Kennetts’ grown sons, Tom and David, their daughters-in-law, and their five grandkids, including 2-year-old Ella, who trots after her father in her little bright pink rubber boots.

The simple pleasures of rural life — fresh air, clean water, honest labor, proximity to nature — are at their seductive best here, right down to the tire swing that hangs from the maple tree and the rhubarb coffee cake that cools on the stove.

But for the Kennetts and the 1,137 others in Rochester and countless communities like it — remote places with abundant beauty and meager resources — the outlook is clouded at best. In its most recent report released earlier this year, the National Climate Assessment (NCA) devoted an entire chapter to the increasingly detrimental effects of climate change on rural America: its infrastructure, economy, and overall quality of life.

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