Schumer, Gillibrand seek federal aid for apple farms, grape growers hurt by freeze last week

Posted 25 May 2023 at 9:59 pm

Press Release, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand today called on U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack to provide swift relief to vineyards, farms, and orchards who have suffered major crop damage from the extreme cold weather last week that destroyed thousands of acres of grapes & apples, and if requested, be ready to approve a crop disaster declaration to provide emergency relief.

As a result of the ill-timed cold snap, scientists at Cornell are saying that the state as a whole lost up to 15 percent of its apple crop, while the Hudson Valley saw losses of between 30-35 percent and grapes were also hit hard with vineyards across New York reporting losses ranging from 5 to 100 percent.

The senators said that this widespread agricultural devastation requires prompt attention from the feds, especially since more frost is forecast in the coming days, and are urging the USDA to make any and all assistance available to impacted eligible growers.

“With apple and grape buds hit by extraordinarily low temperatures in May, the crop losses that farmers across the state are now seeing will have detrimental effects throughout the year,” Schumer said. “That is why I am calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stand ready in two key ways: first, by ensuring that direct reimbursements go out quickly to eligible growers with tree and vine damage through the Tree Assistance Program; and second, by preparing all resources and to be ready, if requested, to approve a disaster declaration and assist farmers and growers in the process of reporting losses and damages.”

“New York’s agricultural industry is essential to the economy and well-being of our state,” said Senator Gillibrand. “As a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, I’m pushing USDA to send emergency assistance to help our producers, orchards, vineyards, and businesses make it through last week’s devastating cold front. I’m also fighting to include provisions that would protect and support New York’s ag producers in this year’s Farm Bill.”

Sam Filler, Executive Director of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation said, “After many growers experienced winter damage in 2022, they were looking forward to a production and uneventful 2023 harvest. It was looking like the stars were aligning for a special vintage until frost struck. The New York Wine & Grape  Foundation will work with our State and Federal partners to ensure that grower financial losses can be mitigated through available disaster relief programs.”

The senators said initial investigations show the entire state was hit hard by the frost events and more frost is forecast in the coming days. According to local officials, several vineyards in the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier already appear to have met the disaster declaration threshold of 30% in damages. Apple orchards in the Capitol Region and Hudson Valley have been badly hurt, with trees losing fruit completely in some cases and in others with fruit likely having significant impacts to quality.

Initial site visits in the Hudson Valley show damage to perennial fruit crops as high as 95% on some farms. Serious damage is expected state wide. Surveying of the extent of the damage is still underway and the full impacts won’t be known until the end of the growing season. In addition to the severe damage already experienced, the state is expecting two more frost events later this week, which will cause further harm to farmers already facing devastating impacts.

According to Empire State Development, New York State is the third-largest producer of grapes, grape juice and wine in the United States. In addition, the state is the second-largest producer of apples in the country. These crops make a significant contribution to the state’s agricultural economy and support many local businesses and jobs, employing close to 100,000 New Yorkers and producing $11.5 billion worth of economic impact annually.

This year’s unseasonably cold frost had particularly devastating impacts on New York’s wine-producing regions, potentially decimating the year’s vintage. The frost, which occurred on May 18th, broke all records and put New York State crops at risk. The Finger Lakes region, which produces the lion’s share of New York State’s wines, with over 9,000 acres under vine, sustained the most widespread damage from the frosts.

Schumer said Upstate farmers have a few options for how to recover from May’s damaging frost. Federal crop insurance can pay out during freezes, but not all growers have it. That’s why Schumer and Gillibrand are urging the USDA to approve a disaster declaration immediately if requested, which would open the way for USDA payments and emergency low interest loans for growers who suffer extensive damage.

Federal disasters can be declared after a freeze in counties that have seen a 30 percent production loss of at least one crop, or a determination must be made by surveying producers that other lending institutions will not be able to provide emergency financing. For a disaster to be declared in New York due to the freeze, New York State would have to request it from the Secretary of Agriculture.

Farmers are encouraged to document damage to their vineyards and orchards so they will have evidence they can use to support any disaster claims they would like to submit. While the full impact of this frost will not be known until the end of the season harvest, farmers should document damage present immediately following frost events, as well as impacts to production at the end of harvest to ensure they can utilize all support available.

While much of the damaged surveyed so far has been inflicted on buds and fruit, farmers whose trees and vines have been damaged can also use Tree Assistance Program, which provides reimbursements to eligible vineyards who suffer extensive crop damage.

Under TAP, commercial orchardists, nursery growers or vineyards that lose their trees due to natural disaster are eligible for a 65% reimbursement of the cost of replanting. Orchardists are also eligible for a 50% reimbursement for pruning and removal. The total reimbursements are capped at $125,000 per year and 500 acres.  Growers will need to work with their local USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) to prepare the documentation for USDA disaster assistance.  The USDA is responsible for approving and distributing such reimbursements.