Brutal summer hailstorms are coming back to haunt apple farmers in Niagara County currently harvesting damaged crops that will have to be sold as apple sauce at nearly half the price fresh apples would normally fetch.
Dan Sievert, of Newfane, who has the largest apple farm in the county, said Monday he stands to lose about $250,000 from hail damage to one-third of his apple crop.
"We don't have to go to Vegas to gamble," Sievert said. "Our whole livelihood is a gamble."
Niagara County is the fourth-largest apple producer in the state, and the majority of farmers said they got clobbered in a series of hailstorms in June, July and August.
"I've been on the farm all my life and I can't remember worst storms," Town of Porter fruit farmer Dan Towers, 57, said Monday. "The hail was terrible this year. We got hit twice."
Towers, a fifth-generation farmer, said he lost half of his apple crop.
One of the hailstorms also damaged his cherries, apricots and other fruit crops on his 160-acre farm, of which 35 acres are apples.
Niagara County has 3,000 acres of apples and ranks behind Wayne County, with 18,000 acres; Ulster County, 5,000 acres; and Orleans, 4,500 acres.
For apples that escaped damage from the hail, the size and color are good and sugar levels high, said Jim Allen, president of the New York State Apple Association.
Proximity to Lake Ontario and resulting moisture in the soil and air make Niagara, Orleans and Wayne counties prime fruit growing areas.
Erie County, by comparison, has only 35 acres of apples.
The shortage of fresh apples this season has increased the price in supermarkets across the state by about 4 cents a pound, said Peter Gregg, spokesman for the New York State Apple Association.
"Consumers can expect to pay a little more for apples, but it's not just
because of the storm damage," Gregg noted. "The cost of farming is getting more expensive. Fuel and fertilizer costs have soared."
The smaller supply of fresh apples in stores is bad news for apple lovers but good news for applesauce fans.
Sievert's 1,000-acre Lakeview Orchards harvests about 200,000 bushels of 18 varieties of apples every year. He is currently picking Empire and Red Delicious varieties, two of the most popular. Of 70,000 bushels damaged by hail, 45,000 bushels will be made into apple sauce. The other 25,000 bushels were so severely bruised they will be turned into apple juice.
While fresh apples fetch $7 a bushel, Sievert said he will get about $4 a bushel for the sauce apples and $2 for juice apples.
"We'll take a big hit this year," Sievert said, referring to his apple income. "Last year, we came out about even. Weather is our big enemy."
Sievert, 55, had a hard time remembering the last year his farm made a profit. He thinks it was 1991.
"I enjoy farm life, but we're just surviving," he said of himself and his wife, Deb.
The farmers have filed for crop insurance but say that could take months and will only cover a fraction of their losses.
Peter Russell, a fifth-generation fruit and vegetable farmer in Appleton in the Town of Newfane, said 10 percent of his 300-acre apple orchard was damaged by the hailstorms.
"There's a good demand for processing apples," Russell said, "so we'll come out about even."
Last year was no picnic, either, Russell added, when a dry season produced smaller fruit. This year's wet season at least made for larger fruit, but then there was the hail damage.