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Grape growers deserve federal help in recovering from a devastating winter

As forecast, the bitter winter has taken a toll on agriculture here in Western New York. Now the question is whether the available federal aid will be enough for the region’s vineyards.

So far, it has fallen short.

As News staff reporter T.J. Pignataro outlined, the weather has devastated grape vines that normally provide riesling, chardonnay and cabernet, leaving only some brown, shriveled fruit behind. The hit to vineyard owners has been substantial.

Chautauqua County vineyard owner Mike Jordan estimates he will have 90 percent fewer wine grapes because of last winter’s extreme and sustained cold.

The Cornell Cooperative Extension has run the numbers and its vine survey shows sharp crop reductions along Lake Erie among tender vinifera plants and some hybrid varieties. The survey, as Pignataro reported, projects 96 percent fewer pinot gris grapes this year, 84 percent fewer pinot noir grapes and 72 percent fewer riesling grapes. The cold had its greatest impact on the Gewurztraminer varietal: 30 percent of the vines are dead, and this year’s crop is gone.

Federal aid for the devastated growers is not meeting the need, although not for lack of trying.

In February, when it became obvious that vineyard damage would be extensive, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., began lobbying hard for aid. He called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide assistance for growers through the Tree Assistance Program in the 2014 Farm Bill and to make emergency disaster loans. Schumer pushed to get retroactive disaster payments into the farm bill following the freeze of 2012. Reacting to this year’s crippling polar vortex, the senator also pushed the USDA to recognize Chautauqua County and other Western New York regions as disaster areas, which opened them up to loans and other forms of assistance.

There was a bright spot for some grape growers, as native Concord grapes rebounded from the cold winter. Maybe even too much. Last year produced a bumper crop, and much of that juice remains available. And now, with the announced closing of juice manufacturer Carriage House in Fredonia and cutbacks by Cott Beverages in Dunkirk, growers are left trying to find buyers for this year’s crop.

Farmers will always be at the mercy of the weather. Federal assistance programs exist to help them cope during down years. The Agriculture Department must do everything in its power to assist stricken grape growers.