ADDISON COUNTY — A freeze that descended over the region for four nights in early May destroyed a substantial amount of the early apple crop at Happy Valley Orchards in Middlebury, as well as a large number of apples at other orchards in the county.
Because of that cold snap, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently designated Addison County as a natural disaster area. The designation makes area farmers eligible for low-interest loans and the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments Program (SURE), a federal program that provides grants to farmers who have had substantial crop losses due to weather and natural disasters.
Craig Miner, Farm Service Agency county executive, said he filed for the designation following the frost, anticipating potential losses for county farmers. In particular, he said, he was concerned about losses for orchardists.
“The frost came along after the apple bloom, when the apples were just forming,” said Miner. “It caused quite a bit of damage when it happened.”
The designation was also extended to Chittenden, Orange, Rutland, Washington and Windsor counties in Vermont, as well as Washington and Essex counties in New York. In a press release, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack expressed concern for all those in the affected regions.
“President Obama and I understand these conditions caused severe damage to the apple crop and we want to help,” he said. “This action will provide help to hundreds of farmers who suffered significant production losses.”
Miner said the process for aid will not start flowing immediately — most farmers won’t have accurate production numbers until after the growing season. The designation gives producers eight months to apply for a low-interest loan, provided that they can show a loss of income.
Alan Rogers, supervisory agriculture specialist for the nine Farm Service Agency offices around Vermont, said that local FSAs keep an eye out for any severe weather events that could cause crop loss, and they must often apply for a disaster designation before there are any real estimates on how substantial the losses have been. If the USDA approves the designation, it allows individual farmers to apply to their local FSA for aid.
“At the end, each person stands on their own as to whether it was a loss,” said Rogers.
He said that in the past, the designation has allowed, for instance, local farmers experiencing a drought to take out a low-interest loan to drill a new well.
Miner said that the process for the SURE program is even longer — farmers must wait until the 2010 average prices for each crop are released, which won’t happen until late summer of 2011. At that point, if producers within the area designated as a disaster area can demonstrate a financial loss of 30 percent or more, they may be able to qualify for grants. This program, said Miner, provides a safety net for farmers beyond crop insurance, which most often will only cover between 40 and 50 percent of losses.
“The program helps to soften the blow that some farmers end up taking,” said Miner.
At Happy Valley, co-owner Mary Pratt said she was expecting losses that could total 50 percent of the expected crop, although she won’t have clear numbers until later on in the season. She does not know yet if the business will apply for aid under the natural disaster designation.
“We’re so busy this time of year — we just try to get through the day of harvesting,” she said. “But we may look into it and see if it’s anything that can help us.”
In the meantime, she said her husband, Stan, has been preparing for the economic hit that the frost will cause, including extending his summer job painting houses to supplement income from the orchard.
“My husband painted longer because we knew,” she said.
Pratt added that the late apples are coming in well — although many of the orchard’s heritage varieties took a hit in the early frost, she said that Macintosh, Honeycrisp and Northern Spy crops are looking good. And this year she’s not advertising the orchard’s pick-your-own offerings as widely as she usually does.
“I want to make sure that I have apples for the people right around here,” she said.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at firstname.lastname@example.org.