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Schumer asks USDA to help grape growers

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer holds a grape stem as he warns that damage to local vineyards due to the Polar Vortex could be as high as 50 percent during a press conference Monday at the Pleasant Valley/Great Western Winery near Hammondsport. Schumer called on the USDA to provide immediate assistance to grape growers.The recent subzero temperatures that have seized the Finger Lakes region may have cost Finger Lakes grape growers untold millions, according to U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY.

But while the damage — and final cost — of the frigid arctic temperatures has yet to be fully tallied, Schumer called Monday for federal grants and loans to help the multimillion-dollar upstate grape industry get a headstart on recovery.

“They can’t wait,” Schumer said, at a press conference at The Pleasant Valley/Great Western Winery near Hammondsport. “They’re really stuck.”

Estimating wine production losses of up to $42.1 million, based on a 2004 deep freeze, Schumer said vineyard owners can’t wait a few weeks or months to assess the full damage before applying for help to replace damaged vine trunks and buds.

The 2004 figure reflects a time when the number of wineries in the region was about half of what it is today, Schumer said. Current estimates place potential grape harvest losses this year as high as 50 percent of grape buds, he said.

Schumer called for U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack to clear the way immediately for distressed vineyard owners.

The senator said the federal Tree Assistance Program, or TAP, which is a part of the newly passed Farm Bill, should provide funds “expeditiously.” A natural disaster declaration also would clear the way for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to offer low-interest loans to offset bud damage, he said.

Cornell Cooperative Extension Viticulture Specialist Hans Walter-Peterson said damage from the icy vortex seems spread in pockets across the region, with damage heavier in the north.

But while bud damage is relatively easy to assess, the damage to the fruit trunks may not be known until the summer, Walter-Peterson said.

“That’s when we’ll know if the trunks can support the heavier grapes and leaves, or if they snap,” he said.

Walter-Peterson said so far it appears there is less damage to the hardier native Concord, Catawba and Niagara grapes than to the European vinifera Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Reisling grapes.

Riesling, in particular, has become the signature wine of the Finger Lakes, garnering awards worldwide.

Schumer warned the long-term effect of a damaged crop could be devastating to associated businesses, too.

The 900 vineyards in New York, employ nearly 7,000 people and annually put $830 million into the state economy, he said.

Source: Star Gazette