WOOSTER, Ohio — After enduring the coldest winter in 20 years, many grape and tree growers in Ohio and western Pennsylvania predicted their summer crop would be greatly diminished.
Now in the middle of summer, their predictions are coming true.
Grape vines and fruit trees are supposed to be green and lush with fruit this time of year. Instead, producers are finding plants that are black and dead, and some that are trying to survive, but will most likely still die.
“The conditions are no better than the predictions,” said Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association.
In a recent statewide survey in Ohio, 63 grape producers reported a 97 percent loss in vinifera (European) grape varieties, a 57 percent loss of hybrid varieties, and a considerably lower loss of cold-hardy American varieties, of just 29 percent.
Winchell said she’s seen a wide variety of conditions across the state, with the Great Lakes region appearing to have the most damage.
There are about five categories of damage that she’s seeing. The worst are the dead vines, which she said are “as black as they were in the middle of February.”
The biggest issue, she said, was where producers’ efforts to “hill up” the soil around rootstock was not efficient at protecting the roots.
Other conditions include growth from the root, but with a dead grafted vine above; vines that are producing green foliage on top, but have big, black dead sections in-between; vines that are producing brittle suckers and bull canes; and lastly, vines that are reasonably lush and would normally survive, but the canes have become infected, which will slowly choke and possibly kill the plant.
Scott Buente, owner of French Ridge Vineyards near Killbuck, Ohio, said almost all of his vinifera are dead, the hybrids are set back about two or three years, while the American varieties will produce a “bumper crop.”
“It was a great learning experience and now I’ve got new places to try new varieties,” he said. “They’re dead — I’m not. I can fix the problem.”
He also grows peaches, which are “nonexistent” this year, he said.
Bill Dodd, president of the Ohio Fruit Growers Marketing Association, said the peach crop usually starts to see losses once the temperature dips to 6-8 degrees below zero. Apples, on the other hand, are usually safe to about 20 below.
Last winter saw a few nights of minus 12, but none that reached 20 below.
“The apple crop at this point is not an enormous crop, but it’s a very, very nice crop,” he said. “Right now, we’re very excited to be apple farmers.”
Some farmers, like Buente, will absorb their losses on their own, knowing they took a risk and believing better years will come.
“We knew we were taking a gamble,” he said. “We lost, we’ll lick our wounds and recover.”
For other producers, state and federal officials are working to make disaster assistance programs available, such as the Tree Assistance Program.
Known also as the TAP, the program was announced in April for orchardists and nursery tree growers who experienced losses from natural disasters that occurred on or after Oct. 1, 2011. The TAP was authorized by the 2014 farm bill as a permanent disaster program.
Steve Maurer, Ohio’s FSA state director, said Ohio was “hit hard this past winter” and that federal officials made the program available in a timely manner, to accommodate recent losses.
The TAP covers trees, bushes or vines that produce an annual crop for commercial purposes, excepting trees used for timber or pulp.
To qualify, fruit growers must suffer a loss in excess of 15 percent mortality from an eligible natural disaster.
Winchell said producers should work with their local FSA staff to determine what assistance they may qualify for. It is her understanding that producers can get reimbursed up to 65 percent of the cost to rehabilitate or replace qualifying vines.
The TAP provides some limits, such as a 500-acre limit on the amount of acres a producer can claim for damage. As with other disaster programs, record keeping and documentation are all a must to receive payment.
Producers may also have options through the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program, which provides disaster assistance to non-insurable crops. Other disaster assistance programs are being made available for livestock, honeybee, and farm-raised fish programs.
Winchell said the relief programs “have been a lifeline” for grape producers and have helped “preserve the industry.”
Without the program, she said many grape producers would likely have abandoned their crops and possibly have given up on grape growing altogether.
In addition to financial assistance, OSU Extension is providing growers with educational workshops to help them manage and recover. A workshop will be held Aug. 13 at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center’s Ashtabula Agricultural Research Station.
OSU Extension Educator David Marrison said the workshop will also address different methods to manage winter-damaged vines.