MOUNT VERNON — The Baumgardner family knows the risks of flooding well.
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Jordan Baumgardner, left, is consoled by his wife Jamie who holds their daughter Grace. Jordan, herdsman at the family’s Mount Vernon dairy farm, struggled in flood waters in the night to save 250 dairy cows and is still reeling from losing 44 of them. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Their sprawling Baumgardner Dairy Farm sits just south of the Skagit River, which is so routinely swollen by rainwater and snowmelt that the nearby city of Mount Vernon built a floodwall. So as the rain kept falling hard the night of Nov. 14 and the Baumgardners herded their cows to fenced “critter pads” on higher ground, everything looked wet but normal, said Jordan Baumgardner, who helps manage the dairy farm owned by his father, David Baumgardner.

But the resulting flood proved to be unlike any other the family had experienced at the farm. The flooding claimed the lives of 44 cows the family had nurtured and watch grow up, and left behind extensive damage they are still trying to assess.

“I carried every single one in my arms at some point when they were born,” Jordan said. “All the cows were born on this farm, which makes the tragedy all that greater.”

The extent of damage from the near-record flood for dairy farmers in Skagit and Whatcom counties may not be known for months, said Dan Wood, executive director for the Washington State Dairy Federation. But the Baumgardner Dairy Farm, one of about 100 dairy farms in the two counties, appears to be the hardest hit, he said.

In the middle of all the devastation, community members have stepped up to offer resources and help to the neighbors affected by the flooding, Wood said.

“Creatures of habit”
The Baumgardner family had prepared their farm the weekend before the Skagit River was expected to crest on Nov. 16 in Mount Vernon as an atmospheric river with its heavy rains washed over the Puget Sound region.

“It’s a giant undertaking,” said Lucinda, David Baumgardner’s wife. The family had to clear up items from the basements in the property’s two homes in case they flooded, as well as secure their 500 or so milking cows, heifers and calves, and their feed.

David Baumgardner bought the dairy farm in 1996.

David made sure the high-ground critter pads where the family’s cows, calves and heifers would stay during the flooding were prepared, and he purchased extra feed for the animals just in case, he said.

There were three layers of protection for the cows, David said. Keeping the cows inside the “critter pads” was an electric fence surrounded by barbed wire and steel panels.

Before dawn, Jordan answered a call from his father, who said the cows were no longer in the critter pads. Jordan raced outside and stumbled into icy water that was 4 feet high and only saw two cows from the 250 still on one critter pad.

“This flood made the previous floods look like nothing,” Jordan said.

The rising water had apparently caused the electric fence to short circuit, making it easier for the cows to break out of the pads as they felt the urge to return to the barn to be milked as was routine.

“They’re creatures of habit,” Jordan said.

Jordan and his brother spent over three hours in chest-deep water with hip and chest waders trying to get every single cow out. The whole family was in and out trying to get the cows out from the flooded area and back to the high ground until it became too unsafe.

“Some people may say your life isn’t worth any amount of cows, but I was willing to try and get close to saving them all,” Jordan said. But there was a point where the water was far too deep for anyone to wade through safely.

“It was tough to leave them,” he said.

The current was strong enough to knock over Jordan’s sister, Shayleigh Baumgardner, 19, as she tried to make her way down to the stalls. She was able to hold onto a fence and make her way back to shallower water.

It was as terrifying for her as it was for her mother, Lucinda, who had watched Shayleigh get swept into what looked like a whirlpool.

“We had each other, which made the situation a little easier,” Shayleigh said. The next morning Shayleigh woke up to bake chocolate chips cookies to try to lift everyone’s spirits.

“I think it worked a little,” she said.

A family endeavor

The Baumgardner family is still picking up the damage left behind.

Jordan, like many of his nine siblings, started helping out on the family farm as soon as he could walk, he said. But it wasn’t until he was around 15 that he took on full-fledged responsibilities. Now at 31, he is the herdsman and co-manages the dairy farm alongside his father.

In addition to Jordan, Jacob and Shayleigh, all siblings, also work around the farm, Lucinda said. The Baumgardners also have three full-time employees, who feel like family.

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