PORTLAND - Area wine grape growers are bracing for a severely damaged crop this year, resulting in New York state's senior senator to call upon the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide disaster assistance for those growers who need it.
Senator Charles Schumer paid a visit to 21 Brix Winery in Portland Feb. 18, where he announced funding to offset hardship costs may immediately be made available to grape farmers across the state, including Chautauqua County.
"I am calling on the USDA to ready funds that will be available through TAP, the Tree Assistance Program," he said. "The winter's been brutal, even by upstate standards, and the polar vortex has brought record-low temperatures. The cold snap and rapid temperature variations could result in major damage to the buds of what will become next year's grape crop."
Photo by Greg Fox
U.S. Senator Charles Schumer arrived at 21 Brix Winery in Portland Feb. 18 to call upon the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide disaster assistance for area grape growers bracing for a severely damaged crop this year. Pictured, from left: Harold Smith, chairman of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, 21 Brix co-owner Kris Kane, state Senator Catharine Young, state Assemblyman Andy Goodell, Schumer, Fred Johnson of Johnson Estate Winery in Westfield, Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Todd Tranum and Robert Mazza of Mazza Chautauqua Cellars in Mayville.
As a result of the extreme temperatures, scientists at Cornell Cooperative Extension are finding damaged buds in test studies, suggesting that over 50 percent of buds in many grape varieties across the area could be damaged this winter (90 percent for the more sensitive types of vines, like those for Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Gris wines), according to Schumer. By extension, vine and trunk damage is also likely. Scientists are thus predicting this winter will be the worst for grapes since 2004.
"If the buds go, it's one year; if the vines go, you need an entirely new vine, and that takes several years before they mature enough to produce grapes. (21 Brix co-owner) Kris Kane and his team estimate they've lost 90 percent of their varieties," Schumer said. "This could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars in loss at this winery (alone)."
While grape growers are just starting to assess the damage, Kane said the brunt of the impact will be seen between one and two years, after the potential crop is brought in. The effects, he said, could be "crippling" to his business.
"We don't see the instant impact; we'll see it much later on, but we know it's going to be there," he stressed. "We have to try to take some protective measures, maybe do some slower releases, not have as wide a variety offered and keep things mostly in-house, as opposed to going out to the liquor store shelves."
Robert Mazza, president/CEO of Mazza Chautauqua Cellars in Mayville, explained how to determine vine damage.
"It's fairly easy; you prune the canes of the grapevines and you put them under water in a warm situation indoors to see if they bud out or not. If 10 percent of the buds bloom, you can say 90 percent are damaged," he said. "You can also open them to see if there is a green material inside them, and if they're brown inside, then they're damaged."
Schumer explained he is calling on the USDA early because of the bureaucratic tape that will need to be cut through, which grape growers cannot afford to wait on.
"My priority right now is getting federal agencies prepared to process and provide disaster assistance for both bud and vine damage as soon as possible," he said. "I don't want to wait until April (when we have a clearer picture of the damage) ... I want them to get ready now so the minute we find our damage, the money is there."
TAP, which provides grants of up to 65 percent for natural-disaster-induced farm damage, is funded by the federal farm bill signed into law earlier this month. Schumer praised the farm bill since it "paid attention to northeast agriculture for the first time."
The assistance program does not provide funding for bud damage, so Schumer is also asking the USDA to approve an area disaster declaration, which would make low-interest emergency loans available to those with damaged buds only. Money for those loans is also provided in the farm bill.
Both TAP funds and emergency loans would be used by farmers to buy juice for next year's wine vintage and/or replant crops for future yields.
"Agriculture and tourism are the bread and butter of Chautauqua County," state Senator Catharine Young (R-Olean) said after Schumer's comments. "We need it to thrive in order for it to be successful and it's an economic driver for our local economy."
"When you lose your crop, time is of the essence," state Assemblyman Andy Goodell (R-Chautauqua) added. "Making sure the USDA is ready and able and has the ability to deliver the funds in a timely manner is equally important."
Schumer also visited Seneca and Steuben counties to relay the same message in those areas.