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Shaheen goes to bat for NH farmers hit hard by weather

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., pleaded with her colleagues to approve federal disaster relief for New Hampshire fruit growers whose crops were decimated by cold temperatures this year.

Shaheen said the losses amounted to at least $20 million for growers of apples, pears and blueberries and “stone fruits,” such as peaches, plums and cherries.

That damage total does not include losses from flooding at many farms in recent weeks, she said.

“This was an unprecedented difficult year,” Shaheen said during a speech on the floor of the Senate late Wednesday afternoon.

Shaheen pointed to a large photograph of tiny apples that grew on some New Hampshire trees after a May 18 frost wiped out “80 to 100%” of many growers’ apple crops.

“These almost look like chestnuts, they are so small and stunted and brown,” Shaheen said.

The stone fruit crops were hurt most by temperatures that dipped to 20 below zero in early February.

Shaheen said many farmers reported a steep decline in visitors last weekend for annual pick-your-own days.

“These visits aren’t just about apple picking, but an opportunity to showcase everything they have to offer,” Shaheen said. “This is what should be apple-picking season but sadly, that’s not the case.”

Most apple growers do not purchase crop insurance because it is cost-prohibitive, Shaheen said.

Crop disaster areas in NH

In July, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack declared five counties in New Hampshire to be disaster areas, where farms were damaged by freezes in February and May.

In August, Vilsack expanded that relief to eight counties. The only ones not included were Coos and Carroll counties in the northern part of the state.

These farm producers can receive emergency loans to support recovery, including replacement of equipment or livestock, or to refinance certain debts.

Unlike victims of natural disasters, farmers are not automatically eligible for broader relief from weather-related damage to crops, Shaheen said.

This assistance depends on Congress approving a separate spending bill.

“There is plenty of precedent for Congress to step forward, which they must do in this case,” Shaheen said.

Earlier this year, Congress approved $3.7 billion in relief for weather-related damage to farms in 2022. Last year, Congress endorsed $10 billion for disasters from 2020 and 2021, she said.

Ken Merrill, who has about 11 acres of fruit trees on his Londonderry farm, lost all of his peaches and most of his cherries, pears and plums.

He found just one peach blossom among his 100 peach trees.

In a letter to Shaheen, Merrill said that he had to cancel his wholesale contracts to sell apples to area supermarkets and inform the New Hampshire Food Bank that it had nothing to sell.

“This is the first time in more than 50 years that I have been associated with the business that we have not had an apple crop,” Merrill said.

Shaheen, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said she’s hopeful Congress can provide this relief by year’s end.

“I urge all my colleagues to support this effort,” she said.