Request made for federal aid to support vineyards and orchards affected by late frost in the Northeast region

The late frost that occurred in May has devastated vineyards and apple orchards in the Northeast. Growers are currently assessing the severity of the damage, which eliminated anywhere from a third to nearly all of their crop. Many of these growers claim that this is the most destructive frost damage they have ever experienced.

In an effort to support affected growers, several states in the Northeast are requesting federal disaster declarations. This would enable affected growers to access low-interest loans and various other programs. Meanwhile, agricultural officials across the region are discussing the possibility of jointly petitioning the U.S. Department of Agriculture for direct financial assistance to farmers impacted by the frost damage.

Scott Farm Orchard situated in southern Vermont has reported a massive loss of up to 90% of apple harvest due to the frost damage. On May 18th, the temperature plummeted to 25 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 3 degrees Celsius) for around five hours, resulting in the loss. Likewise, Shelburne Vineyards located at the northern edge of the state in Shelburne, Vermont suffered a loss of around 50% of grape crop due to the frost damage. As per Ethan Joseph, the vineyard manager, this loss could potentially lead to a half-million dollar decline in revenue.

Shelburne Vineyards intends to mitigate the loss caused by the crop damage by procuring additional grapes. However, this procurement will result in higher costs for the vineyard, considering the losses incurred already due to the frost damage. Ethan Joseph confirmed that the vineyard has wine in stock for sale, and there is a possibility that it may hike its prices to recover some of the financial losses.

“We’ve never seen this kind of freeze event, certainly in the history of the vineyard,” Joseph said. “I’ve been here for 16 years. We’ve never seen anything like it.”

The frost damage was widespread, hitting the Finger Lakes wine-producing region of upstate New York hard. It is estimated that growers in this region lost about half of their grape crop, according to Kyle Anne Pallischeck, the executive director of Finger Lakes Wine Alliance. Some vineyards in the area were severely affected by the frost, while others did not suffer much damage. Vineyard owners state that it’s still early to determine the final financial impact of the losses incurred due to the frost.

David Stamp, the vineyard manager of Lakewood Vineyards, located in Watkins Glen, New York, stated that this frost damage was the worst that he has experienced in his forty years of full-time work in the vineyards. Although the damage is scattered throughout the vineyards, Stamp approximates that Lakewood Vineyards has lost around 30%-40% of its total crop this year. He went on to state that this year’s damage was considerably more severe than all the damage that they have incurred in several previous years put together.

As a result of the significant crop losses faced by vineyards and orchards across the Northeast, there could be shorter supplies of specific wines next year. Additionally, consumers can expect higher prices for apples this year due to the frost damage. The losses incurred have also led some vineyards and orchards to reduce staff, thereby impacting employment opportunities in these sectors.

Keuka Lake Vineyards, situated in Hammondsport, New York, has reportedly suffered a loss of between 50%-65% of its crops due to the frost damage, according to Mel Goldman, the owner and vineyard manager. It’s still too soon to determine the actual extent of the damage, as the vines have yet to produce secondary buds and shoots that could bear fruit. Goldman stated that it would take a couple of weeks before the final verdict can be pronounced.

According to Kyle Anne Pallischeck, some vineyards have seen growth from secondary buds, instilling some hope in salvaging a 2023 vintage. However, vineyard manager Ethan Joseph noted that the new growth observed at Shelburne Vineyards in Vermont is likely too late to produce fruit that would ripen this season.

New York Senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, have requested disaster relief aid for vineyards and orchards from the USDA. However, it’s still too soon to determine the exact extent of the damage, so they did not specify how much aid is required. New York is the second-largest apple-producing state in the country, after Washington.

Connecticut Governor, Ned Lamont, has asked for a federal agriculture disaster declaration for the state. If approved, this declaration would enable affected farmers in the state to access federal disaster assistance programs such as emergency loans to cover their losses. Vermont’s agriculture secretary has urged agriculture officials from other New England states, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania to jointly approach USDA for additional assistance. The secretary has warned that without this aid, businesses may resort to downsizing or complete closure, which could have a devastating impact on local economies.

To mitigate frost damage in the Finger Lakes region, some wineries employed several methods. They ran tractors through the vineyards, while others used wind turbines to increase airflow. Some wineries burned hay for heat, while others mowed the grass on the vineyard to ensure that cold air did not get to the fruiting wire, according to a statement released by Senators Schumer and Gillibrand.

Despite trying different methods to protect their apple trees, at least one small orchard in Vermont, employed a technique of spraying their apple trees with water to encase them in ice to shield them from the dipping temperature, however, it could not prevent loss of their crop. Terence Bradshaw, who specializes in tree fruit and viticulture, and is an associate professor in the plant and soil science department at the University of Vermont, estimates that Vermont lost approximately 50%-70% of its commercial apple crop.

Terence Bradshaw further added that the duration for which the temperature was below freezing was quite unusual. However, it was the combination of multiple factors that led to the significant damage, such as the stage of the buds on the trees, vulnerable plant tissues that were exposed, and lack of wind that exacerbated the impact of the frost.

According to Terence Bradshaw, the rarity of this late frost event is such that, in his opinion, orchards and vineyards in the affected regions may not invest in frost irrigation or other frost protection methods in the future.

While it is expected that some apple growers may still have some fruit, it remains to be seen if it would be enough to justify continuing with the operations, offsetting the production costs. Bradshaw further added that this year’s event is a stark reminder of how vulnerable agricultural businesses are to natural disasters and the importance of having contingency plans in place.