Cold damage has put Finger Lakes farms in line for federal aid

John Christensen
Ingle Vineyard Manager Kyle Franzini of Canandaigua prunes grapes for the upcoming season.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved disaster designations for five New York counties, including Yates, due to crop losses caused by this winter’s extremely cold weather.

The other counties are Cattaraugus, Cayuga, Chautauqua and Oswego.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer stated in a release last week that the designation also applies to counties adjacent the five: Allegany, Cortland, Erie, Jefferson, Lewis, Oneida, Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Seneca, Steuben, Tompkins, Wayne and Wyoming.

Schumer stated his visits to numerous wineries this winter prompted him to urge the USDA to approve the declaration. It will allow emergency loans to farms in the designated counties.

At this point, the most talked-about damage is that in area vineyards.

Michael Colizzi, Viticulture Community Educator at the Yates County Cornell Cooperative Extension, conferred with colleagues and arrived at an average for Yates County of 50 percent primary bud damage.

“This data is an average of all of the varieties tested including, but not limited to, Concord, Cayuga White, Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and many more,” Colizzi says. “Throughout the Finger Lakes there has been some significant damage to the grape buds. Damage appears to be worse on Keuka and Cayuga Lake than on Seneca. We are seeing that there is more significant damage in the northern part of the Finger Lakes,” he adds.

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Yates County Vineyard Specialist Hans Walter-Petersen agrees. With some spots recording as much as 10 to 12 degrees below zero at times this winter, there could be significant impacts on the next harvest. “Viniferas like Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, and Merlot are generally hit the hardest,” he says, adding that French hybrids are more cold tolerant, and natives like Concord, Catawba, and Niagra are hardier still.

Walter-Petersen describes the survival mechanism vines possess against such damage. There are three levels of buds: primary, which will bear the most fruit, but are the least cold hardy; secondary, which will have less fruit but are hardier; and tertiary, which rarely bear any fruit, but are the hardiest and whose leaves will insure the vine’s survival.

Yet it is not only the intensity of the cold that can be a problem. Gene Pierce, co-owner of Glenora Wine Cellars and Chateau Lafayette-Reneau on Seneca Lake and Knapp Vineyards on Cayuga Lake, says, “Temperatures were close to 50 degrees Jan. 11. Therefore, in some cases there has been a 60-degree plus temperature change in a 10 day period. That can be more dangerous than the cold temperatures.” Walter-Petersen concurs, adding that wide swings in temperature can even cause trunk damage and vine death.

In addition, Schumer stated he is pushing the USDA “to provide swift relief to vineyards” that have suffered major crop damage through the Tree Assistance Program. Following crop losses due to inclement weather and other natural disasters, growers often suffer from cash flow problems that impact their ability to replant quickly and also impact production for several years into the future, stated Schumer.

The Tree Assistance Program just passed as part of the Farm Bill can provide reimbursements to growers who suffer extensive damage to plant trunks as a result of extreme weather events, such as the Polar Vortex-induced freezing temperatures earlier this winter.

Pierce recently addressed the issue again in his weekly “Glenora Gazette,” writing: “We will have to wait until later in the growing season to determine this. If the vines were damaged it would result in replanting those vines and crop loss for 3-4 years. While this is significant for those vineyards impacted it in no way is something that is reflection of the situation in the entire region. Example-If a dozen houses in a town are destroyed by a tornado it does not mean the entire town is lost. By having an area declared a disaster area it allows those impacted in that area eligible to apply for low interest loans (which have to be repaid) or to apply for funds to assist with replacing vines.”

Vintner Fred Frank of Dr. Frank’s Wine Cellars stated, “Last year’s bumper crop and good quality crop means that most wineries have pretty high inventories. That lessens the blow and helps us weather any damage like this year could see.”

Pierce adds, “We have experienced similar events in the past. We are farmers and understand the moods of Mother Nature-we deal with them.”

Includes reporting by Julie Sherwood