USDA must be prepared to act swiftly to help vineyards hurt by frigid winter - The Buffalo News
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USDA must be prepared to act swiftly to help vineyards hurt by frigid winter

Our winter-without-an-end is taking a toll on agriculture around the nation and here in Western New York. That’s why it’s good that help is available for specialty crop growers and vineyards in particular through the Agricultural Act of 2014, known as the farm bill.

The farm bill is an imperfect piece of work. It makes significant cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps). But at least lawmakers didn’t increase the pain for specialty farmers, who are a significant part of the upstate economy.

There are nearly 900 vineyards in upstate New York, supporting more than 6,700 jobs and injecting $830 million into the economy. And yet experts warn that this winter is starting to resemble the winter of 2004 when more than 350 acres of vines had to be replanted at a cost of $2.5 million. Growers lost more than a thousand tons of wine grapes to bud injuries, which cost them $42.1 million worth of wine production.

Testing by Cornell Cooperative Extension researchers has shown that wine grapes, such as Reisling, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Gris, have been especially hard hit by the harsh winter. Thankfully, because of their hardy stock, Concord and Niagara grapes that are used for juice and jellies and constitute the bulk of the crop in the Chautauqua County Grape Belt have shown the least amount of bud damage. But for many growers, damage to buds and trunks is at least a serious concern that could quickly turn to hardship.

That’s where the recently passed farm bill comes into play. It includes the Tree Assistance Program (TAP) to reimburse vineyards that have seen significant trunk damage to grape vines because of the extreme cold. The program covers up to 65 percent of the cost of replanting, and 50 percent of the cost for pruning and vine removal.

The difficulty is that growers won’t know the extent of the vineyard damage until spring when the vines emerge. That’s why Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who pushed for TAP to be included in the farm bill in the first place, is now urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to prepare to declare a crop disaster declaration so that emergency loans can be made available quickly for growers who suffer extensive bud damage but not trunk damage.

The senator is spot on in urging the USDA to ensure that direct reimbursements go out quickly to eligible growers with trunk and vine damage through TAP and quickly approve a disaster declaration and get ready to help farmers through the filing process.

Allowing the vineyards to wither will have a negative impact even on people who have never enjoyed a glass of wine. The USDA should be prepared to offer swift relief.

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