Tart cherry growers are set to make a major decision about their industry’s future. They'll decide whether they’d prefer to sell their fruit on a free market or a controlled one.
Most of the nation's tart cherries are grown between Charlevoix and Hart. Yesterday, in Traverse City, industry leaders urged keeping the controls in place. The system allows some control over the supply of tart cherries to keep prices up. The federal marketing order that allows this is up for renewal which means growers have to vote on it.
Some growers have been upset in recent years by the amount of fruit being left to rot because of the restrictions. They feel the order favors fruit processors at their expense.
None of the critics spoke up at the annual meeting Wednesday at the Grand Traverse Resort. Jeff Send, a grower from Suttons Bay, was on the panel supporting the order. Send says he has shared the frustrations of his fellow growers but he thinks changes made in the last couple of years have eased up restrictions and show the industry board is listening.
“I feel personally it needs some time to work itself through,” said Send of the program. “If it doesn’t work itself through in five to six years I’ll stand up here and tell you I won’t support it.”
One producer warned the results could be "gruesome" if they let the free market decide the price of tart cherries. The crop is often too large and then a very warm spring in 2012 followed by frost almost wiped it out entirely. The marketing order is meant to smooth over those boom bust cycles.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has criticized the marketing order in the past as being unsuccessful at fixing the problem of over-supply. Jim Seaquist, a grower in Wisconsin, says if they get rid of the marketing order this year, they’ll never get it back. He says federal agricultural officials in Washington D.C. won’t allow it.
“They do not want to have a federal marketing order with supply control,” says Seaquist.
The federal order that allows the industry to control the supply of tarts also pays for the campaign that promotes cherries as a “super fruit” and touts their health benefits. If growers vote down the marketing order, the promotional campaign, funded at around a million dollars annually, would end too.
Growers vote on the order in March.