Grape growers face the freeze

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SALEM, Ohio – In Ray Gruber’s 85 years growing juice grapes, he’s never needed his priest to bless the vineyard.
Until this spring.
Two particularly cold April mornings wiped out 90 percent of Gruber’s 24-acre crop, making it the worst freeze his Ashtabula County farm has ever seen.
Those newly sprouted buds that had looked as good as ever two weeks ago, are now drying up on their vines.
The only thing to do now, Gruber said, is to pray.
Ohio hit hard. Gruber isn’t the only grower walking his vineyards in the mornings and shaking his head at the proof of his loss.
Concord grape producers from New York to Ohio are also facing a dismal season, said Jay Hardenburg, a field rep for Welch’s and the National Grape Cooperative Association.
Pennsylvania’s crop loss due to the freeze shouldn’t be more than 5 percent, Hardenburg said, but many Ohioans will have at least a 60 percent loss.
Add the numbers and it’s a bleak outlook: The industry is facing a crop loss exceeding 30,000 tons, he said.
Good turns bad. What was good news for growers earlier this season ended up compounding the freeze’s effects.
The vines’ buds were out earlier than normal, Gruber said, so when the first freeze hit April 26, they couldn’t withstand the weather.
Temperatures throughout much of the region dropped to about 25 degrees and stayed that way for eight hours, said David Marrison, ag educator in Ashtabula County.
The area isn’t considered frost-free until the middle of May, Hardenburg said, but temperatures aren’t typically that low or for that length of time.
“The combination was pretty deadly,” he said.
As of now, it looks like Ohio producers may be harvesting only 30 percent to 40 percent of their usual crop, Marrison said.
“Basically,” he said, “it was a half-million dollars down the drain in one night.”
Second chance? Nothing can be done for the buds that were lost. But Gruber hopes by focusing his prayers on secondary buds, there will be something to harvest this year.
If there isn’t too much damage to the vine, it will push out a second bud, Marrison said. The grape cluster will be smaller and there won’t be as many as on a primary bud, but perhaps growers will be able to make up 30 percent of their losses, he said.
Another source of hope for the grape community is the wine varieties were not as far along as the Concord. This means those losses likely won’t be as severe, he said.
But that’s where the positive ends.
Gruber pays harvesting and trucking costs based by the ton, but he said that will change if production is low.
Instead, he’ll have to pay by the acre or the hour, and he guesses his costs will remain the same, even if his crop and profits are dramatically less than usual.
But, for now, there are still many months separating “the freeze” and harvest, and who knows what the rest of the spring’s weather will be like, he said.
Grape growers will just have to wait and see. Or, if they’re like Gruber, pray.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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