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Agriculture commissioner assesses farm damage left by tornado

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LOWVILLE — A victim of severe weather himself, state Department of Agriculture & Markets Commissioner Richard A. Ball said he had to show Daniel O’Brien’s family his support.

“You find a different level of empathy once you’ve faced a natural disaster, and it was a no-brainer for us to want to come up here,” said Mr. Ball, whose vegetable farm in Schoharie was damaged in 2011 by Hurricane Irene.

The O’Brien family dairy and vegetable farm operated at 8013 Route 26 until Tuesday night, when a tornado separated the housing barn from the milking barn. The housing barn was pushed off its foundation and settled roughly 12 feet to the right, toppling onto all 53 cows inside. According to owner Daniel O’Brien, 38 of the cows were saved, but the family lost the rest.

“They’re not just cows; they’re your family. They’re laying there bawling and hurting and they’re your kids,” Mr. O’Brien said. The surviving animals are staying with a neighbor.

Mr. O’Brien and his son, Jacob, had been inside the milking barn when the incident occurred.

“We were very lucky. The only part of the barn that stood was where we stood. It’s scary. I don’t know how anybody can live out West,” Mr. O’Brien said.

The barn was burned down by the fire department Wednesday. Since the disaster, community members have been stopping by the house to assist with cleanup. During Mr. Ball’s visit, two cranes were clearing the land where the barn had stood. Tree branches already had been compiled and cut into fire wood. Friends were working to clean up the house next door.

Those visiting with the commissioner even dropped off some food for the O’Briens.

“I was just talking to Dan about how many people came out here to help. One of the greatest strengths we have in a rural community is that community network,” Mr. Ball said. This is his first year as commissioner.

“We’ve gotten a lot of progress in a short period of time,” Mr. O’Brien said. He estimated there were 400 people assisting Tuesday evening and an additional 50 to 100 Wednesday.

The O’Brien family is considering its options.

“I lost my income,” Mr. O’Brien said. “We have lots of decisions to make as a family. We have to figure out if we want to sell the rest of the cows or buy a bunch more and rent a farm, or keep this farm and maybe rent a barn while we decide whether to rebuild.”

The barn had been in the O’Brien family since 1970. Mr. O’Brien took over running the 200-acre farm in 1995.

“The next generation is right here. I don’t want to stop them,” Mr. O’Brien said, gesturing to his son.

Several other local farms were affected by the tornado, said Michele E. Ledoux, executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Lewis County.

“We’ve done the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) damage assessment and we’re assisting as they go through questions about rebuilding and we’re working with them. Farm business management educators can help as they go through finances,” Ms. Ledoux said.

The O’Briens had insurance on the farm, but were unaware what might be covered, said Jean O’Brien, Mr. O’Brien’s mother.

Mr. Ball said he and Mr. O’Brien were discussing what could be done, but no definite course of action was available.

Also visiting the O’Brien farm were Deputy Commissioner Ronald Rausch, Commissioner Assistant Christina Layne, agency Emergency Management Coordinator Kelly Nilsson, Lewis County Legislator Craig P. Brennan, R-Deer River, Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, Lewis County Manager Elizabeth Swearingin and Lewis County Farm Bureau President Jennifer L. Karelus.

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