- The Washington Times - Monday, August 26, 2002

NORTH EAST, Pa. (AP) Grape farmers on the rich farmlands along Lake Erie were expecting a banner crop this year. Temperatures had soared to 80 degrees in mid-April, promising vines heavy with grapes come the September harvest.
But with the harvest less than a month away, many of those farmers anticipate devastating losses.
After an unseasonably warm spring, a killer frost greeted farmers on the morning of May 20, slithering among vineyards planted in the fields between Lake Erie and a steep slope four miles away.
The frost, in a pattern unlike any other farmers here can remember, spared some vineyards while leaving neighboring vineyards devastated. Within individual vineyards, one trellis might show robust bunches of grapes, while those beside it have no fruit.
"The air was so calm and still that morning the frost did not go away," says Tom Meehl, remembering how the cold snap struck his Clover Hill Farms. When the sun rose, he says, it baked the grape buds already encased in ice, knocking them to the ground.
Of his 325 acres, 200 acres were damaged by frost.
The last severe frost typically arrives in late April each year, early enough that it has little effect on grape buds. A late frost of the kind experienced in May hasn't happened in more than 60 years, experts say.
The growers have been so hard hit that the U.S. Department of Agriculture this month declared Erie County a disaster area, making farmers eligible for low-interest loans.
Pennsylvania vineyards, which grow mostly Concord and Niagara grapes used for juices, were not the only ones affected by frost this year. The disaster declaration in Pennsylvania came a month after the USDA declared 26 counties in Michigan including four grape-growing counties disaster areas. Some agriculture experts estimate 90 percent of Michigan's crop of juice grapes has been lost.
In counties bordering Lake Erie in New York, estimates are that farmers will lose $10 million in income because of frost, according to National Grape Cooperative Inc., a group consisting of farmers who grow grapes for Welch's.
In Pennsylvania, where there is less vineyard-friendly shoreline, the state's 400 grape farmers are expected to lose $1 million this year, the cooperative says. Estimated annual income for state grape farmers in 2001 and 2002 is just less than $24,000.
"Some of these farmers aren't going to harvest, because there's a cost involved in that," says John Griggs, the manager at Pennsylvania State University's Lake Erie Regional Grape Research and Extension Center. "There comes a point when it's not worth it to go into the fields, and I suspect there are a number of vineyards like that."
Grape growers have been drawn to the glacier-carved shores in Pennsylvania and New York since the early to mid-1800s because of the rich, quick-draining soils and the proximity of the lake, which tends to temper harsh winter freezes.
Mr. Meehl expects his crop this year to measure about half of last year's take. A side business of his, building equipment for fellow grape growers, is off by almost 50 percent.
About two miles away, Richard Kubiak, another grower, looks at the damage among the trellises on his 50-acre vineyard. Lifting leaves from a withered, wooden trellis, he points to a single bunch of green Niagara grapes where he says there should be seven or eight.
He estimates 70 percent of his crop was destroyed.
Across the road, in a neighbor's vineyard about 50 feet away, bunches of grapes rest atop one another on healthy vines.
"It's funny how the frost was," Mr. Kubiak says. "You look at the north side of this road and they're doing really good, but if you're on this side, you got your ears boxed back helter-skelter."
Wineries, typically located even closer to the lake because of the higher-quality soils there, were mostly unaffected. The lake offered some protection, and wine grapes also bloom later than juice grapes, meaning their buds were not exposed to the May 20 frost.
Mazza Vineyards, a North East winery that touts its Johannesburg Riesling, was not affected.
"We are doing fine, but things are tough on the Concord [grape] market," says Bob Mazza. "There will be grapes out there, but they're going to be bought elsewhere in the U.S. or South Africa, Chile or Brazil."
Even this year's harvest, which begins next month, may not tell the entire story about how much has been lost. Farmers will have to wait to see whether the frost so damaged the vines that future harvests could be compromised.
"No one knows how those buds were affected, the ones that will put out the crop in 2003," Mr. Griggs says.

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