Walker asks feds for farm disaster declaration

2 requests would cover fruit farmers, maple syrup producers
Walker asks feds for farm disaster declaration

Gov. Scott Walker has asked the federal government to declare a disaster for all of Wisconsin’s fruit farms.

The request comes after trees blossomed early because of March warmth, then froze in April frost. Up to 80 percent of the state’s fruit crop may be lost, state assessors estimated.

The federal aid would likely come in the form of low-interest loans designed to get farmers through the year, said Lee Jennings, a soil and crop agent with the University of Wisconsin Extension.

“It could be really serious,” said Jennings, who said he expected the federal government to approve the request. “Farmers still have their fixed costs of land and taxes and equipment, and they’ve already spent money on fertilizer, seed and weed control. All those bills need to be paid.”

Southern Wisconsin apple farmers said they suffered varying amounts of crop damage, which continued because of the near-drought conditions in June. About 40 percent of the apple crop was lost at Eplegaarden in Fitchburg, said Rami Aburomia, the farm’s operator.

“We’re trying to cut down on expenses as we go through the year,” Aburomia said, adding the biggest cut would come from labor costs. “There’s only so much you can do with apple trees because they’re still growing. You’ve got to keep them healthy no matter if you’ve got a 10 percent crop or a 120 percent crop.”

Eplegaarden will probably not apply for the low-interest loans, he said. Apples were still plentiful on many trees in the 20-acre orchard, perhaps aided by Aburomia’s decision to start small fires in the orchard during the coldest April nights.

The dry weather was good for other fruits, such as raspberries, which are ripe for picking right now, Aburomia said. Eplegaarden is open for self-picking from 9 a.m. to nonn Saturday.

Despite not needing the federal aid, Aburomia said Walker’s request is a positive sign for many farmers.

“I think it’s good they’re taking notice that growing fruit or vegetables is a risky proposal,” he said.

Some farmers have said they have little to no crops, and cherry farmers in Door County have also been hurt, agriculture officials said.

The governor’s aid request also covers maple syrup producers in 14 northern Wisconsin counties, according to a news release.

“It’s true that (the federal government) doesn’t have to approve it, but generally they will,” Jennings said. “If the conditions are serious enough for the application to be a made, more than likely it’ll be approved.”

The lack of fruit will also continue to drive up prices at the grocery store, he said.

For self-pickers, the warm, dry conditions mean the harvest will come in early August for varieties such as Zestar, Aburomia said.

He said the season could turn out all right in the end, especially if southern Wisconsin gets rain soon.

“You’ve got to be an optimism, but if you talk to me, you’ll find all kinds of pessimism,” Aburomia said.