SUMAS, Wash. — Cattle bellowed in fear, chest-deep in icy waters. An electronic grain-distribution system that feeds tens of thousands of farm animals across Washington State sat wet and useless. In the town of Lynden, the Lagerwey farm had turned into an island, shrinking by the minute against the ferocious rise of the Nooksack River.
The cattle weren’t the only ones scrambling to escape: About a third of the employees on the hardest-hit part of Doug Visser’s dairy operation in nearby Sumas saw their homes ruined or destroyed. The workers, at least, lived. Dozens of cattle across the valley perished.
Any disaster is a mixture of small things and large ones. But the floods of recent weeks in northwestern Washington State, with rivers overflowing their banks after a month of record-setting rainfall, came at a deeply vulnerable moment, when the economics of the Covid era had already driven up costs, strained labor supplies and severed supply chains for everything from animal food to fuel to equipment and parts.
An environmental crisis collided with the worsening economic challenges, each disaster making the other worse.
“We were already kind of stumbling going into it,” said Scott McKnight, the owner of Conway Feed, a century-old feed farm company about an hour north of Seattle. “Production lines were behind. We were kind of maxed out on the hours we run. People were maxed out.”
Washington is the nation’s 10th-largest milk-producing state, with dairy products generating $1.2 billion a year. The kind of powerful atmospheric river storms that hit during October and November, scientists say, are becoming more intense as climate change delivers a greater share of precipitation as rain instead of snow.
Jordan Baumgardner, who runs 260 milk cows outside of Mount Vernon, said the sound of the flood still haunted him. He had gone to bed thinking that the animals were safe, penned in at the highest point on the farm, even as the Skagit River, which usually flows placidly by within sight of the farm, was reaching its crest that late November day.
But the cows, driven by instinct or panic, had done the absolute wrong thing during the night — they broke through the fence and headed downslope toward the milking shed, a place they had come to associate with shelter and food. The water was about five feet deep when Mr. Baumgardner and his brother got there around 5 a.m. The cows were packed in together, panicked and bellowing in the frigid water. He watched some give up, roll over and go down into the water to drown.
“The cows were just screaming at me. It was, it was just total chaos. And there was nothing to deaden the sound,” said Mr. Baumgardner, 31, a soft-spoken, second-generation herd manager.
On a recent morning, he stood in the muddy shed, hands thrust deeply into the pockets of his coveralls and fighting back tears. He described how he and his brother had pushed and screamed back, trying to get the animals to move out of the shed and up to higher ground before being forced to retreat to save themselves. Forty-four of his animals did not make it out.
Jason Hoekstra, the chief executive at EPL Feed, just south …….