2017-05-11 / Views

Cherry market needs help from Washington

One political message — and a winner — during the 2016 presidential election held that free trade isn’t free if it costs American jobs.

Cherry farmers in Leelanau County are hoping those words turn into action now that the election is over.

They are asking the White House to protect a cherry concentrate market that domestic growers taxed themselves for years to create.

They bring a good case.

The story starts a little less than a decade ago when the cherry industry, led by the Cherry Marketing Institute, recognized a need to expand the market for tart cherries. Previously known as the best part of a fattening pie or a topping for ice cream — desserts that a health conscience America was buying less of — growers voted to tax themselves to pay for a marketing campaign proclaiming tart cherries as America’s “Super Fruit.”

The campaign, which promoted cherries for heart health, gout prevention and as a blocker of cancer, among other healthy attributes, helped increase annual consumption of tart cherries through concentrate juice from about 22 million pounds in 2008 to 223 million pounds in 2015.

That was great for cherry producers — in Turkey, Poland and other Eastern European nations. Domestic growers are still providing about 22 million pounds annually for the juice market, and still taxing themselves to grow a market they supply very little product to fill.

Imports, which took off during the Michigan cherry crop failure in 2012, now dominate the US market. Concentrate can be more easily shipped than frozen tarts, and take up less space.

So your neighborhood cherry growers and processors have taxed themselves to build a market for farmers in foreign countries to profit from.

Now many local farmers are in trouble as a bumper crop of tart cherry prices struggled to hit 20 cents a pound in 2016. And there’s no room in the supply chain for a large 2017 crop as some 130 million pounds of tart cherries remain in storage.

The U.S. Senate has been somewhat slow in approving a full cabinet for President Donald Trump. There have been some legitimate questions and reasons brought out during the process.

But one of the few nominees whose appointment remains on the table is Robert Lighthizer, the would-be U.S. Trade Representative. Washington cannot respond to the needs of Leelanau cherry growers until a Trade Representative is seated.

Democrats did not attend a Senate Finance Committee meeting on April 6, hoping to force a resolution to a request by coal miners’ unions for protected pensions and health care benefits, according to the news agency Reuters. Lighthizer, deemed a protectionist, has since received bipartisan support from the panel. But a full Senate vote has yet to be scheduled.

That’s a shame. We call on U.S. senators Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, who have been supportive of Leelanau’s agricultural community, to get this done.

There’s a crop that needs to be harvested in about two months, and right now there’s no place to put it.

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