For Turner-based apple grower Andy Ricker, it only took a few months to make 2023 a year to forget. A snap freeze in late May killed budding apple blossoms across central and western Maine, including most of the Ricker family’s crops. To make matters worse, freak hailstorms in July and August damaged what apples survived the freeze.
“Normally for storms like that, you’re counting the percentage of your apples that got hit by hailstones,” said Ricker, the president of Ricker Hill Orchards. “This year, we were counting the number of hits per apple.”
Maine’s apple growers are suffering from their worst harvest in over a decade. Between severe crop losses and wet weather that kept customers home during the peak fall apple picking season, some local growers are struggling to make ends meet through the winter. Many are counting on federal crop insurance claims to help recoup some of this year’s losses, but mountains of paperwork and potential changes to the way crop insurance policies are structured are giving some growers doubts as to how much they can rely on federal aid.
Maine orchards produce over a million bushels of apples a year, according to the Maine Pomological Society. Many of the state’s 84 apple producers are family-run farms that make a sizable portion of their income through agritourism, such as pick-your-own apples.
“This is one of the worst (apple) years for the state of Maine,” said Jeremy Forrett, vice president of Crop Growers LLP, a licensed crop insurance agency operating across the Northeast. “I would say we typically have these types of severe (weather) events about once every 10 years.”
This year, Maine’s apple crop yield was down around 50% from historical averages, according to Renae Morin, a professor of pomology at the University of Maine. Morin said financial losses will exceed 50% because many of the apples that did survive to harvest were blemished by hail and sent to the cider press, which is less profitable.
This year’s meager harvest is threatening to send at least one local orchard out of business. Jennifer Barker’s purchased a small, formerly unattended orchard in Lewiston during the pandemic, and the family reopened it as Honey Hill Orchard in 2021. But the total loss of this year’s crop prevented Honey Hill from opening at all, and it’s forcing Barker to consider closing down for good.
“(The late May frost) just killed everything that had already flowered,” said Barker. “We didn’t even open. And I don’t know if we will, to be honest with you.”
For almost a century, the federal government has subsidized crop insurance policies to help keep farmers afloat during bad crop years such as this one. The US Department of Agriculture works with a national network of 13 approved crop insurance agents to provide tailored coverage plans for dozens of crops, including apples. Eighty-two percent of Maine’s eligible apple acreage is insured, according to USDA data.
Taxpayer-supported crop insurance has long been considered a vital program to help farmers make it through bad weather years. Because apple trees still need to be maintained even if they don’t bear fruit in a given season, many growers depend on insurance policies to cover necessary operating costs if they don’t make enough money from selling their crop.
“In a loss year, when a farmer doesn’t have a crop or has a bad crop, the expenses don’t stop,” said Devon Smolak, a crop insurance agent for Farm Credit East, based in Auburn. “They have to take care of picking the crop, or what’s left of the crop. They have to pay their staff. And what (crop insurance) does is help them get to a place where they can try again the next year and not go completely bankrupt.”
Not all farmers sign up, though. Some Maine apple growers prefer to just put money aside every harvest and dip into those savings to cover expenses in a bad year, rather than dealing with paying for premiums and going through the hassle of filing claims.
“Crop insurance is a safety net. It’ll never make up for having a good crop,” said Jon Clements, a fruit tree industry specialist at the University of Massachusetts who works with apple growers across New England. “And like any other type of insurance, it’s not mandatory. Some growers just don’t buy crop insurance.”
Gathering Winds Farm in Poland lost 100% of its apple crop after the May freeze, forcing owner Stacey Bsullak to close the orchard for the season. Bsullak, who had her crop insured, contacted her agent and began filing claims immediately. Bsullak’s policy required her to continue to spray and mow her crop in order to receive an insurance payout, even though she knew she would have zero apples to show for it.
“We actually did maintain (our apple crop) through the season, which was hard and costly to our farm,” said Bsullak. “Crop insurance will help to cover that part of our expenses for the farm year. I believe it’s in the process of that check to be reimbursed to us sometime the next couple of weeks. So you wait the whole year, even though you lost your crop in May.”
For Maine’s apple insurance agents and policyholders, right now is the busiest time of year. Immediately after the harvest season finishes, growers begin filing claims and insurance adjusters come visit farms in person to verify the crop losses growers have reported. The deadline to select coverage for next year’s crop is later this month, so growers have to make decisions about taking out a policy for next year at the same time.
“I don’t think I know enough about the insurance to get paid as much as we should, because the paperwork is so confusing,” said Andy Ricker’s father, Harry Ricker, who manages the books for the family’s orchard. “And I don’t know if I’m going to be able to afford to pay the premium next year because we’ve lost so much money this year. …I think I’m going to go really low (in terms of coverage).”
The USDA is considering making changes to the crop insurance scheme as a part of the Farm Bill currently making its way through Congress. Over the past five years, for every $100 paid in crop insurance premiums by Maine’s apple growers, they’ve received $116 in payments, according to Forrett. The USDA is under pressure to close that gap: over the past decade, the national crop insurance program has cost nearly $100 billion, with the majority of that being limited by taxpayers.
“The federal crop insurance program has been losing money for a while. …That’s not very sustainable. No insurance company can stay in business and lose money, right?” said Clement. “I want to say they’re trying to tighten the ropes a little bit. Unfortunately, it fits the bigger growers that grow wholesale more, like in New York or Washington. When you sell apples at a real high price like we do in the Northeast, because we have a local market, it starts to make less sense. That’s potentially a problem.”
Unlike larger commercial farms that dominate the national apple industry, many of Maine’s orchards generate their income through agritourism. Libby & Sons U-Picks in Limerick grows over 18 acres of apples and sells all of them direct to consumers who visit the farm, rather than selling wholesale. Owner Aaron Libby said the May frost killed a lot of his crop, including 80% of his honeycrisp apples.
The insurance process is more complicated for orchards like Libby’s. All farms have to submit detailed documentation of who they sold their apples to, and for what price. This means that pick-your-own farms must keep painstakingly detailed transaction logs tracking the thousands of customers buying just a few pounds of apples throughout the fall season. For Libby, it’s just not worth it.
“We’ve been unable to obtain crop insurance. …It’s not really set up for a pick-your-own setup. It’s much more for wholesale,” said Libby. “It just doesn’t fit for us. It really isn’t designed for a small, diversified farm.”
“Most (New England) apple growers also have to market their apples directly to the consumer via farm stands or U-Pick outlets,” wrote a USDA spokesperson in a statement to the Sun Journal. “New England has a strong local foods market, and apples are an important part of the region’s culture. … As a result, frequently they are running two businesses side by side: an orchard and a marketing outlet. This presents recordkeeping and other administrative challenges.”
Despite the difficulties, Maine’s apple growers already have their sights set on next year.
“Apple growers are always optimistic,” said Morin. “They’ve got their crop already planted. With this one bad year, they’re willing to just move on and start thinking about next year’s crop.”