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Lawmakers weigh relief for fruit tree farmers after last May's brutal frost

A closeup photo of an apple tree in spring
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Vermont Public
A tiny apple at Green Mountain Orchards in Putney shortly after the frost in May 2023.

Lawmakers on the House Committee on Agriculture, Food Resilience and Forestry are working to advance a bill that would provide potentially millions of dollars in aid for fruit tree growers before the end-of-week “crossover” deadline.

“Crossover” is the date by which bills must pass from one chamber of the Legislature to the other in order to remain viable, in most cases. This year, the deadline is March 15 for policy bills.

Right now, the bill proposes $10 million in relief funds, but Rep. David Durfee, chair of the agriculture committee in the House, described that figure as a “placeholder.” The final figure will depend on what lawmakers on the House Committee on Appropriations, which deals with spending, are willing to set aside in the state budget.

Apple growers in Vermont are facing dire financial losses after a historic late frost decimated their crop last May. Some told lawmakers they saw 99% crop loss last year, and lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue.

“Although this frost event might seem as it’s kind of in the past, the financial effects are really being felt most at this time, moving into the new season."
Joseph Dutton, Dutton Berry Farm

Speaking to the committee in late February, Casey Darrow of Green Mountain Orchards in Putney said federal assistance has only been available to orchards in the form of low-interest loans through the Farm Services Agency, and there’s been no financial assistance so far from the state.

He said many apple farmers in Vermont don’t have crop insurance because it barely covers losses.

“They pay a commodity price, so per bushel, it’s between $12 and $13,” Darrow said of insurance. “If you talk to any grower around the state, they’ll tell you that’s a pathetic price. Most people are hoping to get probably a minimum of $30 a bushel and upwards of $100 per bushel depending on what we’re selling.”

Darrow says crop insurance covered about one-third of their 95% losses on 90 acres of apples at Green Mountain Orchards.

“We feel very vulnerable right now,” he said. “We survived this damage OK with crop insurance … but we feel like if we had another event this spring … we don’t know what we would do.”

Simon Renault of Scott Farm Orchards in Dummerston said they lost 90% of their crop, and crop insurance covered about 10% of the value of a good crop in a normal year.

Scott Farm Orchards grows heirloom apples, which they primarily sell at local grocery stores and food coops.

“We grow a specialty product and we try to get a premium per bushel,” he said. “Crop insurance rates are determined at the national level, the larger, more commodity you grow, the more it serves you. But for most Vermont orchards, it really does not apply.”

Terry Bradshaw, the tree fruit and viticulture specialist for the University of Vermont Extension, told lawmakers Vermont apple growers began to shift away from selling the bulk of their crop into wholesale markets in the early 1990s.

“A lot of our growers don’t subscribe to crop insurance, because crop insurance doesn’t really work for them the way it’s written,” he said. “It’s written for wholesale apple growers who are still putting that apple on a truck and shipping it to Texas, which is a low value apple.”

Joseph Dutton of Dutton Berry Farm in Windham grows strawberries and apples, and lost 90% of their apple crop to frost. Dutton said the wet weather in July was a real challenge as well.

“Although this frost event might seem as it’s kind of in the past, the financial effects are really being felt most at this time, moving into the new season,” Dutton said.

He said orchards are preparing to hire employees to prune trees, fix equipment and prepare for the growing season.

“I feel like financial assistance is more important now than ever,” he said.

Rep. John O’Brien, a Democrat from Tunbridge, asked growers if they are seeing greater annual losses due to extreme weather in recent years, due to climate change.

“I think that even the old guys… probably had not seen a frost event of this severity,” Dutton said. “ Certainly it happens, but this is truly a once in 100-year event.”

The ‘Backwards Spring’ phenomenon

Apple trees are particularly vulnerable to climate change, since they require a sufficient over-wintering period to bear fruit the following year.

As Vermont winters get shorter and warmer, with less consistent snowpack and more thaws, it puts the industry at risk of potentially seeing lower yields in the coming centuries.

According to the Vermont Climate Assessment, Southern Vermont will likely see these impacts first.

The assessment also says the most pressing issue fruit tree farmers face due to climate change is fluctuations in temperature that happen in late winter and early spring.

If trees bud prematurely during a warm spell that is followed by a hard frost, it leaves the delicate tissue exposed and can cause damage that can stymie fruit production.

Climate records show Vermont has episodically seen a weather pattern known as the “Backward Spring” phenomenon.

Essentially, spring is coming earlier due to human-caused climate change, but sometimes early dry, hot weather is often followed by a flash of unseasonably cool, wet weather that can bring hard frosts as late as June.

Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux, Vermont’s state climatologist, has published research on the phenomenon that draws on farmer diaries, weather records and other tools to track the frequency with which these events happened in the state’s past.

So far, her research has found that this is not a new phenomenon for Vermont — and that there appears to be a correlation between extended periods of freeze and thaw in January and February and backward springs.

When asked whether Vermont is seeing more of these events because of human-caused climate change, Dr. Dupigny-Giroux said more research is needed before a link can be drawn — though it’s well-established that Vermont winters are already shorter than they were in past decades.

Apples in Vermont’s economy

Bradshaw, with the University of Vermont Extension, told lawmakers apples are Vermont’s second-largest specialty crop, just behind maple syrup.

Apple growers make up an $18.5 million industry in the state, which grows to $30 million if you include cider in that figure.

There are at least 60 orchards operating in the state, in every Vermont county except for Essex.

“These orchards provide a living for people, for hundreds of H-2A workers, for hundreds of family members,” Bradshaw said.

Bradshaw said UVM Extension estimates Vermont orchards lost about 60% of their revenue statewide, or about $11 million, due to the frost last spring.

At this point, it’s not clear how the program would be funded. Speaking Wednesday, Abbey Willard, with the state Agency of Agriculture, noted this program is not in Gov. Phil Scott’s budget for this year.

She said the agency does not have any funds available to create a program like this.

“While we are concerned about losses experienced during the May freeze event, we can’t support this item,” Willard wrote in testimony.

She pointed to other smaller pools of money the agency has been able to draw from to help some orchards, as part of ongoing programs.

“We find that these one-time programs are not as effective as sustained economic development programs that can also include climate change, disaster recovery efforts as eligible uses of funds,” she said.

Lawmakers in the committee pushed back, and Rep. David Durfee, chair of the agriculture committee in the House, said they still want to vote the bill out of committee this week.

As of Wednesday afternoon, lawmakers were debating whether to expand the aid program the bill designs to include all fruit growers in the state — including strawberries, blueberries and vineyards.

Durfee says it will be up to their colleagues on the Appropriations Committee, which deals with spending, to determine what, if any, funding they can set aside to aid fruit tree growers in the state.

Durfee says the House Committee on Agriculture, Food Resilience and Forestry will continue to weigh the policy Thursday.

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Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.