2012-05-24 / Front Page

‘Tsunami’ help sought by growers

By Alan Campbell
of the Enterprise staff


REPS. DAN BENISHEK (foreground) and Dave Camp (speaking) heard growers appeal for federal help at a meeting Tuesday in Leelanau County. REPS. DAN BENISHEK (foreground) and Dave Camp (speaking) heard growers appeal for federal help at a meeting Tuesday in Leelanau County. The 2012 cherry crop and its impact on the industry drew some unflattering descriptions Tuesday during a gathering designed to be heard more in Washington than in Leelanau County.

Unprecedented. Complete devastation. Tsunami.

A severe snowstorm that toppled limbs, a series of devastating frosts, and disease that has set into injured trees has orchardists bemoaning a lack of fruit. The damage goes beyond cherries as other fruit crops have been affected, and beyond Leelanau County as western and southwestern growing areas of the state were also pummelled.

The result will be a hit to the Michigan economy that could top $1 billion.

More than 135 people, all associated with the fruit growing industry and most of them growers, assembled at a hastily called forum hosted by the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center in Bingham Township. Many posed questions to Reps. Dave Camp (R-Bay City) and Dan Benishek (R-Iron County). Camp represents Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties now; Benishek’s 1st District will take in the two counties starting Jan. 1.


FRUIT GROWER Don Gregory addresses a group of 135 people associated with the cherry industry, most of them growers themselves, Tuesday at the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station. FRUIT GROWER Don Gregory addresses a group of 135 people associated with the cherry industry, most of them growers themselves, Tuesday at the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station. Neither made promises about specifi c federal programs that might help. Both pledged to take up the plight of cherry farmers and other fruit growers throughout Michigan.

“When it was 80 degrees for a week in March, I knew we were going to have a problem,” said Camp, who spent more time at the podium than Benishek. “This seems a lot worse than 2002.”

Benishek, a physician by trade, focused in on a bacterial canker that has become the third wave of attacks on the state’s cherry crops, entering frost-injured blossoms. The canker and number of trees destroyed by an early March storm that dumped up to two feet of snow in one night will have long-term effects on the ability of the cherry industry to get back on its feet.

“You realize it’s not a one-year injury to the orchard. It’s a long-term injury to the orchard,” said Benishek.

Cherry growers should be in a good position to elicit federal help as Camp heads the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee. However, Washington has been deadlocked in many of its legislative duties as the present Agriculture Bill enters its fifth and final year.

Camp and Benishek viewed orchards

Federal aid tough to get with country in debt

in Suttons Bay Township prior to the gathering; Stabenow is expected to visit Leelanau County in the coming weeks.

Ballooning federal deficits will make it difficult to free up “disaster” funding for fruit growers — which is equivalent to grants that don’t have to be repaid. Camp acknowledged that “budget issues are much worse” today than in 2002, when what was termed a “once in a lifetime” crop failure hit the cherry industry.

“We do want to find a way to bridge this difficult time because there is going to be at least a year, and maybe 15 months before this cycle goes through,” Camp said. “We’re going to have to see and hear from all of you about what might work.”

One problem besetting tart cherry growers is that no federal crop insurance is offered them. A “pilot” program for sweet cherries was put in place in 2000 in Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties that will offer limited help.

Another federal program called Supplemental Revenue Assistance (SURE) was phased out on Sept. 30, 2011. The cherry industry is hoping to have the program returned retroactively in the new Agriculture Bill. However, the program only insures up to $100,000, which provides limited help for county farms that in general have grown fewer in number but larger in acres.

An application to declare fruit-growing counties as disaster areas is being prepared at the state level, and will eventually be taken up on a federal level. Such a declaration will clear the way for low-interest loans allowing farmers to borrow their way through 2012 in hopes of better times in 2013.

John Gallagher, who farms 250 acres of tart and sweet cherries in Elmwood Township, said help is needed for many growers to continue in the business.

“The landscape of Leelanau County could change, in small areas,” said Gallagher, who attended the event. “With this many people, they have to understand. They have a reality check. It’s up to them to find out what they can do ... there has been a lot less disaster and a lot more money thrown at it.”

Like Gallagher, Ben LaCross of Centerville Township comes from a lineage of fruit growers. He serves as Michigan Farm Bureau director for the Northwest district, and provided a synopsis of the problem leading into the event.

“I was very happy to see the grower turnout. We can set up a meeting with Congressmen to show them what is happening in our industry, but if we don’t have a standing room audience like we had today we cannot show them the impact,” he said.

He’s hopeful that the attention being paid to the cherry industry will have short and long term benefits. What tart cherry growers really need is crop insurance such as provided most other farmers.

“I think we have a great opportunity with our disaster this year, in that they will be talking about expanding crop insurance to all sweet cherry growers in the state and to tart cherry growers,” he said. “In the future, that would help our farmers withstand mother nature’s ebbs and flows.”

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