Orchard owners seek federal help in Hudson Valley

Hail pelted 7,000 acres of newly formed apples

July 23, 2000|By Lisa W. Foderaro | Lisa W. Foderaro,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MILTON, N.Y. -- Usually, when hail descends on the picturesque apple orchards of the Hudson Valley, it strikes fitfully, creating havoc on a farmer's field of Empires, say, but sparing his McIntoshes. But this spring's hail was different.

Two storms pelted newly formed apples with jagged balls of ice on more than 7,000 acres, and as the apples have grown, the tiny bruises have turned into ugly divots. Two thousand of those acres were so badly hurt that farmers are abandoning them entirely this season.

In all, some 2.09 million bushels are expected to be lost in what farmers say is the worst crop damage in memory.

"The wind was so strong that it drove the hail into the apples like bullets," said Jeffrey D. Crist, a fourth-generation apple grower who said he had no choice but to let the deformed apples in his orchard here drop to the ground this fall.

Pushed to brink

In earlier times, apple farmers would curse Mother Nature and hope for better luck next year. But a number of economic forces -- from depressed prices resulting from a worldwide glut of apples to spotty insurance coverage to consumer demand for flawless fruit -- have pushed the Hudson Valley farmers to the brink. Many are wondering aloud whether the 10-minute hail bursts in May and June will be what finally breaks them -- and in the process alters an austere landscape of gnarled trees and open sky forever.

As the apple growers band together to ask the federal government for direct cash assistance of $20 million to cover their losses, they are talking as much about open space and suburban sprawl as agriculture, speaking a language they know resonates with politicians, tourists and the many owners of weekend houses here in Ulster County, the second-largest apple-producing county in a state that produces more apples than any state other than Washington.

A dozen or so farmers met this month with Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman in an orchard in Orange County south of Milton, a hamlet just west of the Hudson about 70 miles north of midtown Manhattan. The growers evoked a potential consequence of their financial crisis in apple-producing counties like Ulster, Orange, Columbia and Dutchess, where a wave of new building has swept through in the last decade.

`One-time Band-Aid'

"Do we just go home and call our realtor or do we hang in there?" Roderick Dressel of Dressel Farms in New Paltz asked on a crisp, breezy day that felt like fall. "We're asking for a one-time Band-Aid to keep our industry going, to preserve open space and to prevent it from all going to traffic and septic tanks."

In 1985, 104 farms covered 11,629 acres in Ulster County. By 1996, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the number of farms had fallen to 63 on 8,632 acres.

The decisions now being made by apple growers such as Anthony Porpiglia could accelerate the trend. Having lost 60 percent of his apple crop to the May 18 hailstorm in Ulster County, Porpiglia says he cannot borrow money, even at the low interest rates available to farmers in a declared disaster area. Instead, he is looking to one of his eight orchards to make him whole.

"Our debt load is tremendous, and we don't want to get any deeper," Porpiglia said. "We have an orchard -- 35 acres in Ulster Park in the middle of a development. We're thinking of selling it. It's a valuable piece of land."

Experts in farming practices say that when more than a third of the apples in an orchard are damaged, it does not pay to harvest the remaining good ones.

"You really can't go through and pick only the good fruit," said Michael J. Fargione, an educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension, a program of Cornell University that provides research information and educational programs to farmers."The pickers are paid based on volume and there's really no way to slow a picker down so that he would turn over each piece of fruit and examine it. Even a small ding is enough to have that fruit rejected by a grocery chain."

Gov. George Pataki asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture on June 18 to declare large sections of the Hudson Valley a disaster area, as well as some two dozen counties across the state where heavy rains damaged a number of other crops. But the federal agency has yet to do so.

Many farmers say they would not be eligible for the low-interest loans available through the disaster program anyway. Farmers must first be turned down by their regular lenders to qualify for loans, but banks are more than happy to lend to growers who have ample collateral in the form of valuable land.

In the meantime, farmers who carried hail insurance are having a tough time collecting on their claims. The insurers argue that hail-damaged fruit can still be used for the juice market. But the juice market is so weak that the cost of harvesting the bruised apples would exceed the price paid for the fruit.

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