Saturday, August 23, 2008

Hail to the Farmer

Floods in the South of France in 2002. Drought and extreme heat throughout Western Europe in 2003. Mudslides in the Napa Valley in 2006. Hail in Chester County in 2008?

Real wine should be little more than an expression of nature. However, as important as nature is in contributing to the creation of great wine, it can also present some of the greatest risks faced by any winegrower, any farmer. This year’s most widespread natural “act of god” seems to be hail. I won’t even try to explain the meteorology behind it (for that, we have subject matter experts). In the last two weeks alone, I’ve read reports of hailstorms wreaking havoc in vineyards as far and wide as Montalcino, Beaujolais and the Mâconnais, and Long Island.

The largest hailstone on record fell in 1970 at Coffeyville, Kansas.
(Image courtesy of UCAR.)

The equally wide spread of those storm reports on other wine blogs – from Italy to San Diego, Switzerland to Manhattan – tells me that wine lovers are at least a little keener than the average consumer in their awareness of the natural risks associated with farming.

I encountered those risks first hand when visiting Château Turcaud in the Sauve-Majeure district of Bordeaux back in February 2004. It may have been the heat that got all the attention in the 2003 growing season. That wasn’t the problem at Turcaud, though. Good farming practices brought their wines through with clean, fresh flavors. Their problem that year was hail. In just one fell swoop, they lost over half their year's production to an April hailstorm, which occurred just after budset. During our visit, the ‘03s were still in tank and barrel. But half of those barrels, which would have been full in a normal year, languished without wine to fill them. When hail hits a wine grower’s vineyards, their annual production can be slashed dramatically, even eliminated altogether. If their wines are good, customers take notice.

Hail on Long Island.
(Photo courtesy of Lenn.)

I wonder, though, how many people think about the natural risks inherent in farming when it comes to the food on their daily table. It seems like there’s a much greater disconnect. Nobody talks about it being a great vintage for asparagus like they do for wine grapes. And it's no wonder. Just take a trip to your local supermarket. Come rain or shine, hail or hurricane, there’s always a shiny, perfectly round tomato on the shelf, always a fluffy, unblemished head of lettuce in the bin. I guess those tomatoes are not unlike the bottles of Yellowtail Shiraz perched on the shelf in every corner liquor store around the world. They’re the products of industrial agriculture. It’s not that storm damage never occurs at the agri-business level; it’s just that you’re not likely to think about it unless you work for the company concerned. If fruit gets bruised, it’s thrown out. If a crop is destroyed, crop insurance covers it. Business as usual. There will still be tomatoes in the supermarket. They’ll just come from some other purveyor, location unimportant.

With the increasing interest in the local food movement and increased availability of true farmers’ markets, I’d like to think that disconnect is slowly starting to dissolve. When you walk up to a farm stand and buy a tomato, peach or bean from the person who grew it, your food suddenly becomes more real. It has a face and a name, not just a PLU (product lookup code) sticker. At the same time, the risks those farmers encounter in their daily work become more real, more tangible.

Not long from when those hailstorms were hitting vineyards in Montalcino, Beaujolais and the North Fork, it turns out that a pretty nasty pocket of hailstorms swept through the greater Philadelphia area. On Sunday, August 10, to be exact. I was completely unaware of them – heavy rains at my abode but no hail – until the next day, when one of my coworkers related the details of her weekend. Those details included shoveling hail off her porch. Freaky. But I didn’t give it a second thought until two days later, when I hit my local farmers market for my weekly haul of produce.

Of the four fruit and vegetable farms that represent at the Oakmont Farmers Market each week, one was missing completely. The other three were there to work but with a little less to sell than usual and with visages more drawn than typical.

The most obvious signs of the hail damage were at North Star Orchards. Peaches, apples and the first Asian pears of the season all had little dings and nicks. They hadn’t been hit super hard, as it turned out. Besides, ever since a really devastating hail storm hit their farm several years back, the Kerschner’s seem to take storms like this one in stride. Fruit that would have been disposed of in the typical industrial supply chain instead took on a story of its own, one that Lisa Kerschner (pictured above) could relate to her customers, who seemed more than accepting of the slightly blemished goods. Like little badges of honor.

Blueberry Hill Farm was hit harder. Owner Peg Dearolf (above) was at market that Wednesday but wasn’t sure they’d have enough of a crop left to return the following week. They did sustain fairly extensive damage but not enough to keep them away this week. Upon further inspection, she realized that the cover provided by weeds they hadn’t had the time to extricate took the brunt of the hail impact, saving a decent amount of their crop. Yet another happy argument against aggressive use of herbicides.

As it turns out, the absence of Wimer Organics that Wednesday had nothing to do with the storm. They just ran into a labor shortage that left them without enough hands to make it to market. Bud Wimer’s farm is just a couple of miles from Blueberry Hill but the hailstorm totally bypassed his fields.

Hardest hit by far was Fruitwood Orchards Honey Farm. Fruitwood is one of the largest producers at the market, with a total of 400 acres under production. That’s enough to sell to a fairly substantial list of wholesale clients, though owner Mike Nelson also makes a full circuit of the Philly area’s farm markets. They lost 80% of their crop, very little of it renewable for this season. A near total loss. They could have thrown in the towel for the season. Instead, Mike canceled his wholesale contracts for the remainder of the year, leaving him with enough healthy crops to continue to meet his farmers market commitments. His response when asked about the situation? “That’s farming.”

This is not a call for help. Not even a call for pity. These people all farm for a living. Though there’s little resemblance between them and the agri-business giants I mentioned earlier, they do share at least one thing in common: crop insurance. Even knowing that they’re taken care of, I can’t help but feel for them. One can detect a sense of loss in their expressions, along with a sense of grim yet positive determination.

Their feelings I’m sure are similar to those being experienced by their fellow farmers – the winegrowers with damaged vines and lost grapes in Fleurie, Saint-Vérand, Montalcino and, yes, even Long Island.


lagramiere said...

You can add the southern Rhône to your list, last Monday we had a big storm and a friend of ours lost 70% of his largest grenache vienyard to hail. It was very localized, so you won't hear about it in the press. For this winery, the pain won't be felt for about a year and a half from now when they run out of wine to sell. Everyone over here is talking about the weather this year and the fact that there are 13 lunar cycles instead of the usual 12. It seems that this could be the cause of the strange weather, well that's if you believe in the influence of the moon on the earth!

David McDuff said...

Thanks for the addition, Amy, though I'm sorry to hear of the damage to your friend's vineyards.

The lag time you mention in bringing product to the market is certainly one of the biggest differences between wine growing and most other forms of farming.

Perhaps you can give a sense of how common/widespread crop insurance is for the winegrowers in your neck of the world. Will your friends' winery get any compensation from insurance or will they have to suffer through on their own?

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