Local growers and buyers are assessing the damage from a late-spring frost across Vermont that severely damaged thousands of acres of crops.
According to the U.S. National Weather Service in Burlington, many below-freezing temperatures were recorded overnight May 17 into the early morning hours of May 18.
“We're still grappling, but it was evident that there was significant damage right away,” said Simon Renault, general manager of Scott Farm in Dummerston.“We have a weather station in the orchard and saw the temperatures had gone down to 25.7 degrees.”
Renault said the frost hit when the trees in the orchard were in late bloom, the stage where trees begin the development of apples - the worst possible time.
He called the event “unheard of at that date and level of damage.” He added that a period of heat in April had hastened the apple tree bloom, thus creating more damage than would have been incurred had the trees not been blossoming.
“Had we had 25-degree temperatures consistently throughout April, we would not have been at that stage,” he said, noting 90% damage to all the farm's fruit, especially apples, and a total loss of the farm's cherry crop.
Scott Farm Orchardist Erin Robinson said in a Facebook post that what she found after the frost was “far worse than we could have imagined.”
“It is the most brutal feeling to love something so deeply and be so powerless to protect it. Our orchard took a massive hit,” she wrote. “Even the highest elevations were showing solid brown and black. Everything.”
She cited the “devastating impact on so many levels” and the people who will be affected.
“The workers who rely on us to come here and work to support their families back home, the farm itself surviving, our beloved customers and community who love what we grow and get nourishment from our trees' gifts, and the cider makers who use our fruit to make their magic,” Robinson wrote. “The ripples go far.”
Scott Farm is certainly not alone in coping with the frost.
At Dutton Berry Farm in Newfane, it was a second blow for them. A brief stretch of below-zero temperatures in late February caused the farm's peach crop to fail.
In a Facebook post, the farm said that faced with a partial apple crop and loss to strawberry and blueberry crops, while not a total loss, the effect was “devastating to see.”
At High Meadows Farm in Westminster, owner Howard Prussack said his fields hit 23 degrees Fahrenheit but temperatures quickly rose with the sun.
“I covered the only tender transplants with row cover yesterday and that saved them from death,” Prussack posted on Facebook.
Renault said he's concerned now about Scott Farm's blueberries, which saw some damage with the frost but look “mostly fine.”
The farm was already dealing with the February cold snap that brought the loss of most of its peaches and plums.
“That happens,” Renault said. “Honestly, growing peaches and plums in Vermont in general is a little bit of a gamble anyway.”
He said the Vermont Agency of Agriculture has been surveying farmers and now are waiting for “June drop” - when fruitlets the size of a big marble tend to fall from the trees - “to make a final assessment as to what falls and how much is hanging on.”
“For most of us, the fruit is already dropping and we know the loss is very significant,” said Renault, adding that he's currently looking for partners outside New England “who grow interesting apples” to supplement the orchard's crop to meet consumer demand.
“We might make cider,” he said. “We will find ways to keep the farm and farmstead really interesting and have some fruit.”
Tallying losses and looking for federal aid
Scott Waterman, the Agency of Agriculture's policy and communications director, said Agency officials are “still waiting for an assessment of the big picture and individual farms, and we're working on whether there is a federal response or not.”
“Everything is on the table, depending on the situation,” he said. “I don't know if the state would have a particular response other than to support and advocate for a federal response.”
He noted that the state's budget for the next fiscal year has been voted on. With a veto from Gov. Phil Scott, a financial response from the state is in limbo.
“We're trying to learn what the situation is and advocate for any and all options to support our farmers, but what all that means at this point is not clear,” said Waterman, urging affected farmers to reach out to the Agency.
He added that farmers would have needed to purchase U.S. Department of Agriculture crop insurance by November 2022 for it to apply to the May event. He said that the insurance is only for crop loss and not lost revenues from a product that could be derived from a crop.
Dr. Vern Grubinger, vegetable and berry specialist at University of Vermont Extension, said that surveys have gone out to farmers statewide through the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers Association. He has received 70 responses from farmers around the state who documented temperatures that May night from 17 to 29 degrees Fahrenheit.
“At 17 degrees, basically everything's in trouble,” Grubinger said.
Survey results show 298 acres of outdoor crops lost or damaged, 84,000 of greenhouse or “high tunnel” crops lost or damaged, and an estimated loss/damage dollar value of $1.3 million from just these 70 farms, many of which are quite small.
Grubinger said orchard damage will be even greater as tree fruits took the biggest hit.
“Mostly apples, but peaches, pears […] it's not good,” he said, noting the damage came as different perennial crops were developing at different rates and thus were more susceptible to damage.
“Apples were at a very vulnerable stage,” he said. “It really depended on your micro-climate. Some strawberries weren't further along, so [they] were less vulnerable.”
Unusual as it was, the frost, however, was not “out of the historical norm,” Grubinger said, although it was “the most extreme in a while.”
“It's an individual event, but this spring has been kind of a roller coaster ride - and that's the pattern we're seeing with climate change: more erratic weather,” he said.
Grubinger said that blueberries, grapes, and strawberries were also damaged, as were vegetable and flower seedlings.
At the mercy of the weather
Grubinger sent out guidance for growers prior to the frost to help them save what they could.
More can be done to protect small crops versus trees from cold weather, including using row covers and hoops under them, he said.
Another way to do that, he said, is what mid-sized and larger growers do: make ice form by providing a light misting to keep ice developing throughout the event.
“Doing that incorrectly is worse than not doing it, but strawberry growers understand the principles,” he observed.
On top of the crop and income loss, Grubinger is keenly aware of another way growers were at the mercy of the weather.
“The stress that farmers experienced trying to deal with this and worrying and running around, staying up all night - that's the part of the story that doesn't get told,” he said.
He added that smaller, diversified farms aren't generally insured.
While Scott Farm does have crop insurance, Renault said it gives “a fairly low compensation per bushel,” being designed for “large commodity orchards, orchards on a much larger scale that primarily grow commodity apples.”
Scott Farm grows more than 130 varieties of heirloom apples so, in their case, Renault described the crop insurance claim as “nowhere near compensating the loss.”
Just 13% of the farmers who responded to the surveys had crop insurance and most of that was disaster coverage, which only covers a loss above 50%.
“You don't get made whole with that,” Grubinger said.
Local orchardists and other growers are invited to a meeting on June 14, at 7:30 p.m., at Green Mountain Orchards in Putney for a meeting with Grubinger, state Sen. Wendy Harrison, D-Windham, and state Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, to share information about their losses from the freeze, assess the damage, and try and find ways to help.