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Tart cherry growers and processors narrowly renew Federal Marketing Order

Max Johnston

U.S. tart cherry growers and processors narrowly voted to renew the Federal Marketing Order last week. The FMO passed with 53 percent of growers and 57 percent of processors in favor.

The FMO is an agreement between growers and processors to withhold a set amount of tart cherries each year from the market and store them in reserves to keep the fruit’s price from falling too low. They also agree to pool resources for communal marketing campaigns run by the Cherry Marketing Institute.

This year's vote was much closer than previous referendums. The FMO was renewed in 2014 with 76 and 74 percent of grower and processor votes respectively, and has generally passed with 70-80 percent of those votes. But lately more farmers are frustrated with the order as the industry is undercut by cheaper foreign competitors.

Dave Meister, a farmer in Onekama, doesn’t support the marketing order and says by storing fresh cherries that aren’t sold the industry is giving up sales.

“The marketing order is designed to limit us from selling our cherries so somebody else can,” Meister says.

U.S. cherry growers say their tart cherries sold for an average of $4.60 per pound, while Turkish cherries sell for 89 cents per pound on average.

The U.S. industry as a whole has produced high quantities of tart cherries the past few years, which means some growers must pay more to store them. That hurts small operations the most, according to Meister.

Meister says he is one of many farmers who think there should be an open market for those cherries instead of storing them. He admits this would lead to more competition, and farm closures, but says that’s already happening.

“It’ll be back to the strongest survive,” Meister says.

But the FMO passed thanks to supporters including Nels Veliquette, a cherry grower in Kewadin. Veliquette says the FMO is one of the last things keeping cherry prices from plummeting even lower, and having cherries stored will help them in lean years when yield is low.

He also says the marketing campaign that the industry paid for has worked, adding that tart cherries are used in more food products than ever before.

“Without that collective power to pool resources, we would not have the market for tart cherries that we have today. We just wouldn’t,” Veliquette says.

He says the real issue the industry is facing is foreign competition, which they wouldn’t be able to investigate or confront without collective action that the FMO allows.

The industry has spent nearly $2 million investigating cheap foreign imports to no avail. Veliquette says they’re pursuing more legal action against companies that may be breaking U.S. customs law.

Growers and processors will come back together in September to determine how many cherries will be stored this year.

Max came to IPR in 2017 as an environmental intern. In 2018, he returned to the station as a reporter and quickly took on leadership roles as Interim News Director and eventually Assignment Editor. Before joining IPR, Max worked as a news director and reporter at Michigan State University's student radio station WDBM. In 2018, he reported on a Title IX dispute with MSU in his story "Prompt, Thorough and Impartial." His work has also been heard on Michigan Radio, WDBM and WKAR in East Lansing and NPR.