USDA May Help Replant Burned Vineyards

California grapegrowers apply to Tree Assistance Program for federal funding

by Jane Firstenfeld
Steve Collum lost his entire crop of Syrah and Viognier to the Butte Fire that burned nearly 71,000 acres in California’s Amador and Calaveras counties.
San Rafael, Calif.—As many as a dozen vineyards were scorched or destroyed by wildfires in California’s Lake County and Sierra Foothills in summer 2015. Some owners have already applied for federal assistance under the USDA’s Tree Assistance Program (TAP), and others may still be eligible, though they must act promptly to receive funding.

Earlier this year, we wrote about TAP as a resource for grapegrowers whose vineyards have been affected by the insidious red blotch virus. Katie Delbar, county executive director of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency for Lake and Mendocino counties, confirmed that some vineyards in Middletown, Calif., had been damaged by wildfires, and told Wines & Vines, “I think TAP will be a good fit to help them replace and rehabilitate their vines.” She suggested that growers begin the claims process “by the end of the year.”

Delbar was not able to specify which vineyards were affected, nor would Debra Sommerfield, president of the Lake County Wine Commission. Sommerfield said, “Approximately 10 vineyards in southern Lake County were impacted by the Valley Fire. Vineyard damage ranged from some heat-damaged leaves along outer vineyard rows to vine damage and trunk charring. Additional damage included losses of irrigation systems and melted water pumps, trellising and fencing, as well as lost equipment such as tractors.”

On behalf of Lake County winegrape growers, she continued,  “We are grateful to USDA’s Farm Service Agency and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Their teams have been on the ground in the impacted area since the start of the fire, working directly with wine grape growers, farmers and ranchers who had damage resulting from the fire.

“While I can’t confirm who, I do know that several of our grapegrowers are working directly with both agencies. The two agencies have provided incredible support to impacted grapegrowers by hosting casual drop-in informational sessions almost daily, sharing details about the various available cost-share programs designed to assist with tree and debris removal, fence repair and replanting, and doing one-on-one site visits out to the vineyards to help owners assess damage and identify which programs are available to assist,” Sommerfield said.

Cross to bear in Calaveras County
In Calaveras County, vineyards were affected by the Butte fire, but Jeff Torres, county farm services executive director said recently that he’d only had direct contact with a single grower.

“Farming is the biggest form of legalized gambling,” said Kevin Locke, owner of Locke Vineyards. He told Wines & Vines that the crop in a 5-acre Zinfandel vineyard in Mountain Ranch was destroyed just before harvest. The grapes, Locke said, were insured, but he hopes to draw upon TAP funds for subsidies including cost sharing for vine replacement, fencing and irrigation equipment.

Locke visited the USDA office in Stockton, Calif., to fill out necessary forms and pull up maps displaying the scorched acres. “They said they would come to San Andreas for public meetings and to look at the sites,” he said.

While the fire burned through 5 acres and he lost the crop, “Some are already sprouting back,” Locke said. The 24-year old Zinfandel vines were very established with 10-foot-long roots, he added. Locke is trying to look at the disaster as an opportunity. “We’re thinking about grafting some over to Barbera. In the section that’s really burnt, we could interplant. I don’t think a lot will die outright, but it’s still a pain.”

Steve Collum of Vineyard Concepts LLC had leased a 9-acre vineyard planted to Syrah and Viognier near Mountain Ranch, Calif. He lost his entire crop and about half the vines—along with drip irrigation lines—just prior to harvest. The crop was insured, but the fate of the vineyard is still uncertain.

“Most of the vines don’t need to be replaced, but they need to be rehabbed,” Collum said. “I’m meeting with owners, because I’m just leasing. I’ll have to see if they want to continue.”

Locke, meanwhile, has a restart strategy in place. He hopes to buy big, established, potted vines from a nursery rather than planting dormant bench grafts or planting rootstock and field grafting later.

Magnum or Uber vines from Hughson, Calif.-based Duarte Nursery are one example of a shortcut to the next harvest. “The Uber vines are all ready to go on the trellis wire; they are 3 feet tall and good for interplanting,” Locke said. “We could wait to see what’s budding out and could have a crop back pretty quickly. We’d lose just one to two years of production.”

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