Grape harvests hampered by unseasonably low temperatures have become a concern not only for area farmers, but United States Senators who are now calling for an emergency response from state officials.
Following a late seasonal frost in May, area grape growers suffered overall crop losses in the neighborhood of 15-20 percent - or upwards of $3-4 million in Chautauqua County alone, which farms around 17,000-20,000 acres - according to Jay Hardenburg, regional manager of member relations for National Grape Cooperative Inc., at the time. In the face of such devastating crop losses, area grape growers were left with doubts about future harvests in addition to the dead fruit hanging on their vines this year.
"The damage from the frost ... was fairly extensive, not just in Chautauqua County, but throughout the Lake Erie Grape Belt, stretching all the way from Hamburg-North Collins area to all the way out west towards Cleveland, Ohio," Hardenburg said in May.
On Wednesday, however, U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand - the first New York Senator in nearly 40 years to serve on the Senate Agriculture Committe - urged New York state officials to request a disaster declaration for areas of Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Erie counties in order to provide urgently needed disaster assistance to the many farmers affected.
The grape industry is crucial to the Western New York region, they said, providing a multitude of people with respected professions. According to the New York Department of Agriculture and Market, New York ranks third in the country for wine and grape juice production. The Western New York grape industry has some of the largest and oldest grape farms in New York, and enriches not only the lives of those people living in the area, but many across the state. Cornell Cooperative Extension cited grape industry tourism and associated industries as having a statewide economic impact of $6 billion.
"Western New York it known for its world class vineyards, and the late freeze this spring was devastating to local farmers," Gillibrand said. "New York's farmers are a critical part of our economy and we must ensure their success. It is important that our farmers and communities receive the federal assistance they need to recover this season."
On May 18, according to more recent reports from Schumer and Gillibrand's offices, temperatures dropped into the low 20s, damaging acres of grape crops throughout the region. Current estimates claim 50-60 percent of farmer's grape crops were lost in some areas, with the greatest damages impacting farms in Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Erie counties.
Local grape grower Jim Fisk said in May a significant portion of his entire crop was dead as a result of the frost which occurred. Out of the 150 acres he owns, he said an estimated 65 were severely damaged. A 35-acre vineyard he owns off Chestnut Road was completely lost, while another 10-acre vineyard off Farel Road was about 95 percent lost.
"In all the years that I've been around grapes and have been doing grapes, I've never seen anything this severe," he said.
In addition, he said it looked as if both the primary and secondary shoots and buds were frozen, preventing any hope of salvaging this year's crop. He explained this could ultimately have a negative impact on his 2010 crop as well, a concern he said is shared by a number of fellow grape growers.
Surrounding vineyards suffered equally as much, Fisk said, many of which were almost completely wiped out. He cited vineyards on Temple Road which were severely hurt, Van Buren Road which were completely lost, and even his father's 15-acres west of Adams Road which were damaged.
Richard Feinen, who farms about 120 acres of grapes situated off King Road in the town of Sheridan, said he won't be able to harvest around 25-30 acres this year due to the frost.
Senators Schumer and Gillibrand's actions in response to such losses - calling on state officials to declare the counties of Cattaraugus, Chautauqua and Erie disaster areas - hope to provide critical assistance to the hard-working farmers of Western New York by expiditing federal aid to the areas impacted by this recent brutal freeze and restoring confidence to a critical part of New York state's economy.
"We must provide immediate assistance after the unusually low temperatures that destroyed their crops and profits for the season," Schumer said. "The health and strength of our farmers has a direct impact on our local economy and we must do everything we can to ensure that they have the financial aid they need to recover from the damage caused by last month's freeze."
A disaster area designation would make farm operators in both primary and contiguous counties eligible to be considered for low-interest Emergency loans from USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA). These emergency loans are designed to help producers recover from production and physical losses due to freezes, drought, flooding, other natural disasters, or quarantine. Emergency loan funds may be used to restore or replace essential property; pay all or part of production costs associated with the disaster year; pay essential family living expenses; reorganize the farming operation; and refinance certain debts.
"New York state's farmers who suffered the brunt of this brutal weather cannot afford to wait for this critically needed assistance," the senator's wrote in a letter to Gov. David Paterson. "Farmers are the backbone of our economy and when they are devastated the whole state feels the impact of the damage"
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