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Late frost may have ruined 75% of area grape crop

Jennifer Phillips Russo and Dr. Terry Bates, both with Cornell Cooperative Extension, discuss grape buds and how they can be harmed from a late frost.

PORTLAND – Possibly 75% of the concord grape harvest in Chautauqua County may have been damaged by a late April frost.

Friday afternoon, county, state and federal officials gathered with farmers at Cornell’s Lake Erie Regional Grape Center to discuss the frost, the impact it could have on the crop this year, and ways to address issues like this in the future with crop insurance.

Among elected officials in attendance were Rep. Nick Langworthy, state Sen. George Borrello, Assemblyman Andy Goodell and County Executive PJ Wendel. There was a representative from the United States Department of Agriculture in attendance as well as members of the state Farm Bureau.

An unexpected freeze on April 25 caused major losses for grape growers in the Lake Erie Concord Grape Belt. County Executive PJ Wendel said it’s believed that 75% of the grape crop may have been lost. “That’s millions and millions of dollars. This is a huge impact,” he said.

According to a document prepared by Dr. Terry Bates with Cornell Cooperative Extension, the damage was much worse on the eastern side of Chautauqua County along Lake Erie than the western side. Projected crop loss ranges from around 15-20% at the state border in Ripley, to 50-75% in Westfield, to 80-100% near Silver Creek. By comparison, 0-5% of the grape crop near North East, Pa. may have been affected by the freeze.

County Executive PJ Wendel discusses challenges local grape farmers have due to the late April frost.

Bates said the primary shoots were the most damaged. Grapes have secondary shoots, but they seem to be heavily damaged as well. “We’re seeing the secondaries, the clusters don’t look very good,” he said.

In regards to Wendel’s statement of the potential of 75% loss overall, Bates responded, “that’s a fair assessment.”

Because of the potential of such a heavy loss, area officials are lobbying Gov. Kathy Hochul to declare a disaster declaration.

Goodell said last year a disaster declaration was issued for a late frost in the Finger Lakes, however the secondary shoots on those grapes did well. He suspects that’s why a disaster declaration has yet to be issued. “My guess is they’ll wait and see what the secondary clusters come out which should be coming out starting (this week). My guess is if they come out as bad as feared, that will provide the basis for the governor to make the declaration,” he said.

If a disaster declaration is declared, Goodell said that will open up federal funding to be able to come to area farmers affected.

Rep. Nick Langworthy discusses “The GRAPE Act” which is part of the proposed Farm Bill.

Rep. Nick Langworthy said he has introduced the Grape Research And Protection Expansion Act,” also called the GRAPE Act, as part of the Farm Bill. This would create a crop insurance policy to cover losses incurred by table, wine, and juice grape growers as a result of freeze events.

According to Langworthy, specialty crop producers currently have access to insurance plans at reasonable rates, offering coverage for losses resulting from incidents like tropical storm or hurricanes. However no policy exists to cover specialty crop growers’ losses caused by freezes, which are becoming more frequent and are significantly harming the agricultural sector. “The GRAPE Act is a commonsense solution that will help our grape growers access affordable crop insurance and recover from the devastating impacts of a deep freeze,” he said.

Jennifer Phillips Russo with Cornell Cooperative Extension confirmed what Langworthy stated, that more and more often, grapes are being harmed by late frosts.

The increase in damage appears to have to do with how green shoots are coming out earlier than in the past. “In the decade of the ’70s it was May 11 was the average bud break, when the green tissue would start growing. In the ’80s it bumped up to May 7. In the ’90s it was about May 6. I went all the way through the ’20s that we’re in now. Granted there are only the four growing points there, but it is April 29. So it’s getting earlier and earlier throughout time and the frost-free days that we have are not changing,” she said.

After the public discussion, Langworthy said his proposed legislation won’t be able to help with this frost, but will make a difference moving forward. “We’ve had ongoing conversations with the industry. They’ve asked for it and we went and got it for them,” he said.

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