Nova Scotia Vines Withered by Freeze

Historic, killing frost likely to affect next vintage, wineries plot path forward to salvage 2018

by Peter Mitham
Johnston Vineyards in Nova Scotia suffered extensive damage from the frost as seen in this image posted to the winery’s Twitter account.

Gaspereau, Nova Scotia—A month after an unprecedented killing frost swept across Nova Scotia growing regions, wineries are still trying to determine how deep and far-reaching the losses are.

“All vineyard folks are still assessing the damage,” said Gerry McConnell, principal of Benjamin Bridge, which has made a name for itself with sparkling wine in the Gaspereau Valley west of Halifax. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. But everyone is trying to be positive and working hard to work with what we have.”

Growers across the four provinces that comprise the area known as “Atlantic Canada” were stunned by the blast of cold weather, which came two days after temperatures exceeded 80° F. June 3 saw overnight temperatures dip below freezing, then on the morning of June 4 temperatures fell to less than 29° F at the federal weather station in Kentville.

“We’ve never had the frost this late, on record. So it is definitely a historic event. It has affected not just the grape industry but all fruit growers,” said Jerry White, executive director of the Winery Association of Nova Scotia.

Effects could last more than one year
White told Wines & Vines that preliminary reports from Agriculture and Agri-food Canada and Perennia Agriculture and Food Inc., an agricultural consulting firm owned by the province, indicate that the freeze is likely a multi-year event. “There will likely be stunted cane growth for the current year, in at least some vineyards, which means that they will not only have a reduced harvest for this year but likely a reduced harvest for next year because the canes won’t have regrown,” he said.

While growers such as McConnell have estimates of their losses, there are too many variables at play to know exactly how the damage will play out. On the plus side, weather conditions in the first couple of weeks following the freeze warmed up and the past week delivered a heat wave that saw temperatures exceed 85° F.

“The weather that we’ve had the last couple of weeks has at least helped the plants recover somewhat and started to show where the secondary buds are going to break,” White said. “[This] will both hopefully produce some fruit for the current year, albeit at a lower level, and also ensure cane growth during the season so they have canes to lay down for next season.”

The province has supported new plantings through a four-year, $12 million (all amounts in Canadian dollars) program with the aim of having 1,000 acres of vines by 2020, up from approximately 700 acres today. Nova Scotia wines have also taken their place alongside those from Ontario and British Columbia at international trade events, and its industry is part of the Canadian Grapevine Certification Network, which last week received $8.4 million in federal cash to develop a national research cluster.

Ottawa’s commitment sets the stage for up to $3.7 million in industry funding that will help growers better protect their crops, test new vine varieties and identify environment-friendly growing practices.

Potential assistance
Growers met with the province’s agriculture minister, Keith Colwell, on July 9 and discussed assistance to help them weather what could be the extended impact from the freeze.

“Crop insurance is great for growers, but for wineries it represents a small portion of the revenue because it’s a value-added product that you’re dealing with,” White said. “What we’d be looking at is not bailout kind of stuff, but how do we make sure the wineries can maintain cash flow through a lower harvest? Because it’s next year that that’s going to start to hit.”

Colwell told Wines & Vines no commitments will occur until the scope of the damage is known. While there’s been some new growth, it’s unknown how much grapes the vines can bear. “We’ve got to see exactly how bad the situation is,” he said. “It’s cost a lot of the parts of our agriculture industry in the province, so we can’t move forward until we get this evaluation done.”

The preliminary assessment should be complete by the end of July, but some sectors may not know the extent of the impact until this fall or even spring 2019.

“We don’t know how bad it’s going to be,” Colwell said. “We’ll see what the harvest comes out like, and then next spring we’ll see if there are any long-term effects on the plants.”

Canada’s latest multi-year program for agriculture, the five-year Canadian Agricultural Partnership, is more flexible regarding producer enrolment in business risk management programs such as crop and income insurance. Colwell said there are opportunities under those programs, too.

Business risk management funding under the previous five-year program, Growing Forward 2, saw the province’s grape growers receive $1 million to develop a dynamic risk assessment tool.

“This event highlights the need to do more of that type of analysis, but it also highlights the complexity of that undertaking,” White said. “This highlights the need to have a very robust, complex model which can take into account how you deal with one-off events.”

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