Vermont leaders pursue federal disaster aid after orchardists face ‘heartbreaking’ losses in May freeze

Greg Burtt of Burtt’s Apple Orchard in Cabot estimates he has lost more than half of his crop to frost damage. He is hopeful that some of his crop can be salvaged. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Strolling through rows of his trees on a gray, rainy day in June, Greg Burtt couldn’t help but smile when he pictured a typical autumn day at his apple orchard in Cabot.

In his picture-perfect imagination, he envisioned a sunny day. He described how hundreds of cars park in his fields and stretch down his road on any given fall weekend. Along with his family and a handful of staff, Burtt will fry roughly 600 dozen cider doughnuts in a single day. Families will stay for hours picking their own apples and munching on fresh fruit, doughnuts and cider. Kids can slide down a playground’s yellow curly slide or run through the small corn maze as many times as they’d like. A pumpkin patch and 15 acres of fruit trees are surrounded by hazy blue mountains.

“You know, it’s surprising how it doesn’t feel crowded in the orchard. I think there’s just so much space,” he said. “But you can just hear chatter and families hanging out together having a good time.”

Greg Burtt of Burtt’s Apple Orchard in Cabot, seen on Wednesday, June 7, estimates he has lost more than half of his crop to frost damage. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Things may look different this fall at Burtt’s Apple Orchard. On the night of May 17, temperatures plunged into the 20s in Vermont, and a deep freeze set in across the entire Northeast, decimating fruit crops in a region known for its yearly bounty.

More than three weeks later, it is unclear how much aid the federal government will provide to farmers who suffered devastating losses in the once-in-a-generation weather event.

“A frost in May is not unheard of, but this one was significant enough because it was so cold,” Vermont’s Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts told VTDigger this week. “And the particular timing — the apples were in bloom, the blueberries were in bloom, very tender vines for the grapes — everything was really vulnerable.”

Much of the damage was immediately visible. On the morning of May 18, farmers could split open their apple buds and find brown inside, a sure sign of death for the young fruit. But weeks later, a fuller picture of the frost’s impact is coming into focus.

Along with colleagues at the state Agency of Agriculture, staff with the University of Vermont Extension surveyed fruit tree farmers across the state. Nineteen apple orchards responded, accounting for roughly half of the state’s acreage. “For the vast majority of respondents, estimated crop loss was 95% or greater,” Tebbetts told VTDigger.

In apples alone, the financial losses accounted for in the survey are upward of $3.6 million. For cider, the survey documents another $1.2 million in losses. Add in other types of fruits — grapes, blueberries and stone fruits — and the total crop losses among respondents are an estimated $5.8 million.

Assuming that the farms that haven’t responded to the survey fared similarly, Tebbetts said, losses across the state could surpass $10 million.

“I think there was a lot of frustration that there was really nothing anyone could do about it,” Tebbetts said. “You know, Vermont does not have that infrastructure of possibly protecting crops from frost. … It’s really heartbreaking.”

It’s a blow so devastating that Tebbetts has drafted a letter — which he is now circulating among state officials across New England and the Northeast, gathering signatures — to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, pleading for a federal disaster declaration and financial aid to the region’s farmers.

Much of the damage was immediately visible. On the morning of May 18, farmers could split open their apple buds and find brown inside, a sure sign of death for the young fruit. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Worrying about the unknown

Three weeks after the frost, Burtt walked through his rows of trees, inspecting their branches. Some varieties seemed to persevere. He plucked a Pixie Crunch fruitlet off a branch, and broke it open to reveal a hopeful green interior. 

Others varieties seemed almost frozen in time, their blossoms — now papery and brown — holding on to the branch, refusing to bear fruit. As he walked through the rows of anomalies, he shook his head, muttering that the trees were “doing weird things.”

Burtt hopes he’ll see 25 to 40% of his usual crop, and knows he’s lucky compared to fellow orchardists whose crops were wiped out completely. But there are still so many unknown factors: Will this year’s apples have damaged cores, rendering their flavor bitter? Will their growth be stunted, making for tiny, undesirable fruits?

“The first couple days afterward, it was really nerve-wracking. You go through periods of being mad, and then just being distraught,” Burtt said. “You realize how much of what you do is out of your control, which is, in a lot of ways, humbling, I guess.”

Still, his mind wanders. It’s human nature. One swath of his orchard fared significantly better than the other, and he developed his theories of why: He gestured to the mountains and mimed airflows and cold bursts and shelter provided by surrounding trees.

“I’m sitting here saying, ‘What did I do different to this orchard than that orchard? Could I have done something to get fruit on my whole orchard?’” he said. “Probably there’s nothing I could have done. You still sit there and you wonder if you could have done something better.”

For some, crop insurance may help cover their losses. But crop insurance is not mandatory, and many farmers forgo it in order to save the premium. Others, like Burtt, opt for what he called the “bare minimum” coverage level.

Burtt is insured through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency. An agent has already taken a preliminary assessment and will come back in the fall to conduct a final assessment of how his crop fared.

But Burtt has no idea what kind of payout he will ultimately receive. Never having experienced a natural disaster like this since he began selling apples in 2009, Burtt has never had to file a crop insurance claim before.

“You go through periods of being mad, and then just being distraught,” Greg Burtt said. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

‘We don’t have a piggy bank’

John Roberts, a former dairy farmer who now serves as the Vermont state executive director for USDA’s Farm Service Agency, told VTDigger that he wants to be cautious not to raise farmers’ hopes too high that the government will come to the rescue.

“If they had insurance, great. If this event encourages them to get insurance in the future, great,” Roberts said. “If we can get a (disaster) declaration, I don’t know the extent to which relief would be granted to the farmers. I have no way of knowing that.”

Asked about un- or under-insured farmers for whom May’s frost may be the final financial blow, forcing them to shutter, Roberts exhaled and said, “Goodness. Well, I would not be surprised.”

“Certainly, my message would be not to look them in the eye and say, ‘Well, tough beans. These are the breaks,’” Roberts said. “No. I work for an administration that does try its hardest to keep farmers on their farms.”

He pointed to low-interest loans serviced through the Farm Service Agency. He conceded that a loan can’t help every struggling farmer — particularly those already “mortgaged to the hilt” — but, “If you’ve got somebody who wants to keep going, I know that our staff will bend over backwards to do what they can to help them.”

“Unfortunately, we don’t have a piggy bank sitting with cash in it, and these are the harsh realities of life,” he said, before correcting himself. “Of farming, maybe not life, because farming is so unique.”

In his letter to Vilsack, Tebbetts painted a relatively grim picture for producers ravaged by the freeze, saying the region is at “a critical crossroad with our growers.”

“Right now, growers are assessing their ability to stay in this industry,” Tebbetts wrote. “Unfortunately, many orchards, produce operations, and vineyards are either uninsured or under-insured and insurance claims are unlikely to cover the total business loss from crop damage and reduced revenue from value-added products. Without aid we will see devastating blows to local economies because of downsizing and closing businesses.”

Vitally, crop insurance covers only crops — meaning, no value-added products made using the crops. That means crop insurance won’t cover vineyards’ lost income for the wine they can’t produce and sell with the grapes they now don’t have. They can only claim the losses on the grapes themselves.

Or for Burtt, he can’t claim any income lost on his annual fresh cider and doughnuts. He’s begun calling orchards significantly larger than his own, hoping to purchase some of their apples wholesale, and make his cider and doughnuts using their apples. But when he calls, even they don’t know what to expect of their crop come fall.

Greg Burtt of Burtt’s Apple Orchard in Cabot estimates he has lost more than half of his crop to frost damage. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

‘You have to do all the same work’

All the while, Burtt has to keep working hard, knowing all the meanwhile that his crop is sure to be scant.

“You still know you have to do all the same work. You’ve got to mow the grass, you’ve got to protect the trees from different diseases and bugs, you already did all the work on pruning,” Burtt said. “You’re like, ‘OK, all this work I’m doing is for a year-and-a-half from now when I might get paid.’”

Burtt just hopes that people will still come out to support his orchard — even if he has to press his cider with apples from elsewhere. His primary-school-age children are brainstorming new endeavors to support the family business. Their recommendation: a french fry stand.

“I’m just hoping that people still come out even though we won’t have as many apples,” Burtt said. “Crop insurance, that’s great. But as long as people still want to come out and support the farms, that’s huge.”

Read the story on VTDigger here: Vermont leaders pursue federal disaster aid after orchardists face ‘heartbreaking’ losses in May freeze.