Sometimes farming is likened to gambling. This year the odds are stacked against grape farmers along the traditional grape belt which runs along Lake Erie from New York through Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Richard Erdle, Director of Member Relations for National Grape, pointed to two incidents that caused damage to the grape crop. There was a frost on April 13 which killed many of the primary buds. Another frost occurred on April 28 and 29. At the time of the frost there was concern that secondary buds were damaged although at that time it was unclear how much more damage was done.
The severity of the damage varied from place to place. At the end of April, Erdle said, "It is early to tell, but there was a severe impact to the vineyards."
OBSERVER Photos by Diane R. Chodan
Top: A closeup of a damaged primary grape bud shows it is brown and dead. This bud has no chance of producing fruit.
Above: Gail Black, who owns the Sugar Shack in Westfield, said she has been fortunate with grapes as well as other types of fruit grown on the farm. Here she poses with a currant bush which is developing normally. She creates fruit syrups from fruits grown on her farm. She sells the syrup in 10-ounce bottles at her business and online.
Kevin Martin, business management educator at the Cornell Lake Erie Research and Extension Laboratory (CLEREL) (Lake Erie Regional Grape Program) recently was able to provide more data on the situation. He said, "At this time the gross loss to the crop is estimated to be $9 million. That means a 45 to 60 million dollar direct economic loss." He explained the gross loss does not take into account the amount farmers may recoup from crop insurance.
That estimate comes from looking at the individual vineyards during the time after April 29. Martin said testing was done at nine sites in the Grape Belt. The three test sites in our area and the percentage of damage were: Silver Creek on Route 5, 57 percent damage; Sheridan on Route 20, 56 percent damage; Cattaraugus County on Versailles Road, 100 percent damage. In all, there were nine sites tested along the Grape Belt.
The lowest amount of damage was 4.5 percent along the Northeast Escarpment in Pa. Martin explained that in lower-lying areas, the cold air which sinks tends to pool. At the upper elevations it was actually warmer.
He said, "Beltwide, the average amount of damage is thought to be 35 to 45 percent, but we are still tinkering with the numbers."
Jodi Creasap Gee, a viticulture extension associate at CLEREL, explained a grapevine can produce primary buds, secondary buds and tertiary buds. The primary buds are the first to develop and produce the most fruit. Secondary buds will "push" when the primary buds are damaged. They produce fruit although less than the primary buds - one-third to one-half of what primary buds will produce.
Gee said, "Tertiary buds are purely vegetative. This means the vine is in survival mode. The leaves produce the food for the vine to keep living."
She explained that because of the early budding, farmers were concerned that the buds would be damaged in a frost. "A farmer can mediate this by leaving more buds and trimming later," she said.
Jim and Karen Fisk had hosted a meeting with Assemblyman Andrew Goodell and State Senator Catharine Young at their vineyard in the town of Dunkirk after the April 13 frost but before the April 28-29 one.
Jim said, "The secondary buds were pushing out. We lost the secondary buds. It looks like nothing is growing. The vines look like it is the middle of winter."
Jim said his farm has had several bad years and as a result his crop insurance was canceled. He said he is not alone in this. Between 65 and 75 percent of farmers have coverage. According to Jim, Cornell tried to mediate for the farmers who lost insurance but was unsuccessful. He could appeal this, but local attorneys " are scared of it because it involves the federal government and won't mess with it." He is still considering an appeal.
Colleen Yerico of Yerico Farms said she and her husband, John, own four different vineyards and the damage varies from one to another depending on location. About one vineyard she quotes her husband as saying, "I won't even take the machinery into that one."
Meanwhile, Gail Black, owner of the Sugar Shack, in Westfield said the grapes on her property as well as the other fruits she grows look really good despite some damage. She says her location on Route 5 right next to Lake Erie provided some protection for the crop. She was still optimistic.
No matter the amount of damage, it is clear that the crop was compromised. Everyone is hoping there are no more frosts, but no one is betting on it.
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