Most Northern Michigan cherry farmers are done harvesting their crop, but a good portion of those cherries were dumped on the ground to rot, because of an industry marketing agreement intended to keep cherry prices stable.
The issue was brought into the public eye when Old Mission Peninsula farmer Marc Santucci posted a Facebook photo of cherries he was forced to dump on the ground. The photo went viral, and at this writing, it’s been shared 61,397 times and has 8200+ comments.
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“These cherries are beautiful!” Santucci wrote. “But, we have to dump 14 percent of our tart cherry crop on the ground to rot. Why? So we can allow the import of 200 million pounds of cherries from overseas! It just doesn’t seem right.”
He added, “Just to let everyone know, we are not allowed to donate or in any way use diverted cherries. I have people who would buy them if I could sell them. Also, these are tart cherries with a very short shelf life.”
The story was picked up by multiple news outlets, including USA Today via the Detroit Free Press, where Keith Matheny writes, “At issue is a marketing order imposed through the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of the federal Agricultural Agreement Act of 1937. But that law only applies to the tart cherry industry because growers and processors opted into the order in 1995.”
Santucci isn’t happy about it, noting that limitations on the amount of cherries he can sell are “a vain attempt to prop up the price of cherries … My concern is, we’re trying to limit the supply here, but all that does is increase imports.”
Old Mission Peninsula orchards yielded a bumper crop of cherries this year. Johnson Farms, along with their leased farms (farms where someone has contracted them to shake the cherries), harvested a total of 1,828,618 pounds of tart cherries, with almost 100,000 pounds of cherries “diverted” (dumped on the ground).
Heatherlyn Johnson Reamer, who manages Johnson Farms, says the dumping of cherries is a harsh reality for farmers.
“I understand why we do it, but it doesn’t mean I like it,” says Reamer, adding that she believes there’s a better solution. “I am one person, one farmer, and it will take all of us standing together to make a fair and equal change.”
Here’s a couple of videos of cherries being dumped on Johnson Farms’ “Diversion Day” on August 4, 2016 (videos courtesy of Reamer).
Perry Hedin, executive director of the DeWitt-based Cherry Industry Administrative Board, notes that the marketing order was created at the industry’s behest. “It was voted in by growers and processors,” he says. “It’s not an imposition from outside.”
The Cherry Industry Administrative Board oversees the marketing order in all states across the country that produce commercial crops of red tart cherries, including Michigan, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.
Hedin says that tart cherries are one of the most volatile crops grown in the U.S., and yields can vary dramatically from year to year. The marketing order has two goals — to inject a better stability into the markets and also improve grower returns. “The growers have been paid far better prices under the marketing order over the past 20 years than they were before the order was in place.”
Each year, the board, which is comprised of handlers and growers from each of the above states, reviews cherry supply-and-demand dynamics. During years when there are surplus cherries, Hedin says the surplus must be withheld from the domestic market.
This year, the total tart cherry harvest included an estimated 351 million pounds, resulting in a surplus of 101 million pounds. Hedin adds that processors’ options in times of surplus include holding the restricted cherries in surplus – frozen, dried or concentrated – for a later slow year.
He says that farmers also can attempt to sell the surplus cherries in overseas markets or sell them domestically in a newly created market, either in a new product or by convincing a supermarket chain or other end user currently supplied by imported cherries to switch to U.S.-grown.
But Santucci says that imported tart cherry concentrate from Turkey and Eastern Europe is undercutting U.S. growers and processors.
“If I have to sell these excess cherries for less, I might not make that much more,” he notes. “But if we’re ever going to stop the increase in imports, we’ve got to compete with them head to head on every cherry we produce. If we don’t do that, we’re leaving the market wide open to them.”
Hedin counters by noting that the U.S. tart cherry industry has focused on retail markets, rather than the industrial markets that foreign producers tend to target.
“We don’t produce enough concentrate in the entire United States to satisfy the demand of the import product,” says Hedin. “The import product is coming in at 200 million pounds per year, and we’re producing 30 million to 50 million pounds. Even if we took our whole crop in many years, we couldn’t satisfy that demand. It’s not a competitive market for us.”
But not all northern Michigan farmers are dissatisfied with the marketing order. Ben LaCross of LaCross Farms in Cedar, says he’s ok with it. “It’s not price-fixing,” he notes. “It may be price-stabilizing, but it’s also industry-stabilizing, and has proven to be useful in helping growers develop stable returns.”
He says that dumping cherries on the ground is a self-regulating option “which no farmer wants to do,” but it sometimes happens. “It’s help in managing our crop for the long-term benefit of the industry. That’s what the marketing order is designed to do, and that’s what it does.”
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