Rocko Fouch and his son Nick Fouch made headlines this week when they posted on Facebook that they had to dump 16 tanks of tart cherries on the ground (about 16,000 lbs.) and were looking to sell off part of their family farm due to losing money on cherries year after year.
“I can’t hang on anymore and am selling property,” said Rocko, whose family has been farming on the Old Mission Peninsula for generations. Rocko’s parents, Ann and Howard Fouch, farmed the land previously.
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Rocko (aka Raymond Fouch; Rocko to those of us who’ve known him forever) recently retired as a teacher with the Traverse City Area School System (TCAPS) and has been farming full-time since then. He loves farming and doesn’t want to get out of the business, but sees no clear path forward.
Ideally, however, he will sell part of his farm and keep a small portion to continue farming, even though he’s been selling cherries at a loss in recent years.
Rocko said another 80,000 lbs. of tart cherries at Fouch Farms would be shaken on the ground this week. “Because of government subsidized imports and our ‘leadership’ at the C.I.A.B. (Cherry Industry Administrative Board), we find ourselves in a multi-year depressed price on tart cherries,” he said.
Making Cherry Lemonade Out of Lemons
Making cherry lemonade out of lemons, Rocko and Nick invited the community to bring a bucket and come get some free cherries. Which they did, in droves, this morning.
When my husband and I stopped by to get a photo, Rocko said he was overwhelmed that their Facebook post went viral, but also said he was glad to help encourage discussion about the cherry industry. “It’s getting people talking about it anyway,” he said.
He later posted on Facebook: “We went thru about 1100 pounds of tart cherries in an hour and a half this morning! Done for the day. Met and talked to some great people. We live in a great supportive community! Thanks so much for the support!”
The Old Mission Peninsula is the epitome of a supportive community, but what the cherry farmers really need is support from the government and cherry industry leaders.
Cherry Imports from Turkey Hurt Old Mission Peninsula Farmers
In Breana Noble’s article in the Detroit News dated June 5, 2019, she noted that U.S. tart cherry growers and processors have seen profits slump and disappear as imports from Turkey, the world’s largest tart cherry producer, take over the U.S. market with prices below domestic production costs.
“U.S. businesses claim Turkey heavily subsidizes its cherry growers and that a hefty levy is needed to level the playing field – or else the U.S. tart cherry industry, about three quarters of which is in Michigan, could evaporate,” wrote Breana.
Group Files Petition to Impose Tariffs
In April, the Dried Tart Cherry Trade Committee, comprised of four Michigan cherry processors – Traverse City’s Shoreline Fruit LLC and Cherry Central Cooperative and Frankfort’s Smeltzer Orchard Co. LLC and Graceland Fruit Inc., along with Utah-based Payson Fruit Growers Co-op, filed a petition through the U.S. Commerce Department and International Trade Commission against Turkey.
The committee argues that “Turkey is dumping dried tart cherries into the United States at a margin of up to 648.35 percent above fair value because of a wide array of Turkish government subsidies, including grants, loans, investment incentives, tax credits and land provisions,” wrote Breana.
The government responded in June that there was evidence that Turkey underprices their cherries with the help of government subsidies.
And in Kurt Nagl’s article in Crain’s Detroit Business dated July 30, 2019 – just a week ago – he reported that “cheap cherry imports from Turkey are threatening farmers in Michigan, who produce two-thirds of the country’s tart cherry supply.”
Michigan farmers produced 300 million pounds of tart cherries worth $56 million last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as reported in the Wall Street Journal. The same amount of cherries was worth $107 million in 2014.
“Over the past three years, Turkish cherry imports have nearly doubled annually, with imported product selling wholesale for about 89 cents per pound, according to the USDA,” wrote Kurt. “Cherries grown by U.S. processors cost about $4.60 per pound. Michigan farmers say they fear if tariffs are not imposed on Turkey, they will be forced to shut down.”
Cherry Marketing Order Restricts Crop
For Rocko Fouch, that time has arrived. Especially when you throw the Cherry Marketing Order into the mix, which allows for a fruit restriction “to stabilize prices and provide a consistent supply to the market,” wrote Jennifer Kiel in an article at FarmProgress.com.
The restriction is established by the 18-member Cherry Industry Administrative Board, which Rocko mentioned earlier. This board consists of six producer members, eight handler members, three members who can be either producers or handlers, and one public member.
The idea is to keep a portion of the cherry crop off the free market, “because with so much of the nation’s supply grown in northwest Michigan, virtually the entire tart cherry crop can be devastated by one bad storm, or the market can be flooded in a good year,” wrote Jennifer.
This has been going on since the Cherry Marketing Order was re-established in 1997, but it doesn’t take into account the Turkey imports.
After discussions that ranged from restricting 63 percent to no restriction at all, the board decided on a 35 percent restriction, which may change at the post-harvest CIAB meeting on Sept. 12, 2019.
Processors dictate to growers how much of this year’s 35 percent restriction should be shaken onto the ground, diverted at the processing plant, or put into storage for other uses, including establishing new markets, exports, displacement of imports and new products.
The processors also determine how much they may or may not pay for that fruit, as well as setting the price for delivered fruit. It’s always been a topic of discussion among cherry farming families that it’s one of the few industries where you never know how much you’ll be paid until after the product is delivered.
The Cherry Marketing Order expires every six years and is up for renewal in 2020. It’s unclear whether the tart cherry industry will continue to set a restriction, but one thing is clear.
If things continue as they are, there will be more Old Mission Peninsula farmers like Rocko Fouch, who think about downsizing their farms or getting out of the cherry business altogether.