Whitney Blodgett has been farming in the family’s Vermont apple orchard, commercially known as “Sentinel Pine Orchard,” his whole life. Blodgett says that the family purchased the orchard in 1964, and have since grown, adding the abandoned dairy farm next door.
Sentinel Pine Orchard, is comprised of 220 acres of apple trees, mostly planted in the Macintosh variety. When harvest time comes, Blodgett along with his wife and farm hands, store, pack and ship fresh fruit to market. “That is our niche market because we can grow those apples very well in this climate,” he says.
Blodgett explains that because of the nature of the business – there aren’t a lot of ways to protect an orchard from the whims of Mother Nature – his chief risk management tool is crop insurance. “We had crop insurance claims in 2004, 2007 and 2011,” he explains. “And all of them were because of hail.”
Hail has always been dreaded in the orchard industry because it hits later in the summer, with the coming of the severe summer thunderstorms, and can damage the apples to the point that they’re no longer marketable as fresh fruit. But 2011 was a very different story.
The hail hit in the early spring, just as the blossoms had fallen from the fruit and the small apples were beginning to form. “There’s nothing we can do against hail because we can’t build a roof over the whole orchard,” he said.
“It was very odd in 2011, the hail hit early in the development of the apples and deformed them,” said Blodgett. “We had to wait and see how they developed and then decided if they would be able to be sold as fresh fruit,” he explains. The other option, if the fruit formed but wasn’t marketable as fresh, was to sell the apples for cider.
Blodgett says they held their breath and said their prayers for months as the apples slowly developed, keeping their fingers crossed that the hailstorm didn’t alter the apples beyond the point of marketability. But in the end, with the apples looking dented and battered, they were forced into the cider market.
“So we reluctantly decided to put the apples into cider,” he explained, which in financial terms, is a six-fold reduction in the value of the year’s harvest.
Luckily for Blodgett, he had purchased a “fresh apple” crop insurance policy that had a 50 percent coverage level. Blodgett explains that immediately after the hail incident, he had contacted his crop insurance agent who sent an adjuster out to the orchard within days. “The adjuster did a preliminary determination, but there would not be a final determination until final harvest,” he explained. “It’s a nail biter right to the very end, since you don’t know how bad things are going to be right away.”
But this wasn’t the first time he had looked to his crop insurance policy for a lifeline.
Blodgett explained that he took over the business from his father shortly after they had a large fire in their storage facility, which was full of apples. “The facility burned down, and that was the start of some very lean years,” he said. And although his father had always shied away from crop insurance, Blodgett decided that he needed the risk protection it afforded.
“I purchased a crop insurance policy in 2004, when things were pretty lean and we couldn’t withstand a lot of loss,” he said. “We were stretched very thin at that time.”
Coincidentally, that also happened to be the first year they experienced a large hailstorm, which stole their harvest and would have left them in very desperate times. “Without a doubt, when that first hail storm hit in 2004, we would have been knocked out of business for good,” he said.
“My father had never purchased crop insurance but thankfully I had decided to,” he said.
“Without crop insurance, I wouldn’t own an apple orchard right now,” he says. Blodgett explains that while crop insurance has kept his family in business, it has also had a positive “trickle down” effect on many of the areas businesses, where he buys his crop protectants, fertilizers and equipment. “If we went out of business, it would impact a lot of people,” he said.
Blodgett notes that crop insurance is essential for his business because even if you get a damaging storm at the beginning of a season – and your lose your entire crop – you still have to spend the money to take care of the trees and manage the orchard in preparation of next spring’s crop. “Even when we lose the crop early in the year, as we have done in the past, we still have to maintain the orchard for the rest of the year,” he said. “Otherwise, your orchard will be a mess the following year.”
And despite the disappointment of sending his whole 2011 crop into the cider market, Blodgett is still farming this year, hoping that what started off as an “iffy” year with a late freeze will still produce a respectable, and marketable, crop.
“Things are looking up, although we have some damage and loss, “ he says. “But this year, we will have a fresh crop of apples to sell.”
“It could be better, it could be worse.”