2017-08-17 / Views

Much at stake at Washington meeting

Take a deep breath, Leelanau. Your cherries are in.

Time to sit back with a cherry lemonade — or cherry bounce, which includes a shot or so of bourbon — and reflect.

It’s been a tough season for most orchardists. They beat back an invasive fruit fly with a buzz saw for a tail by ramping up sprays. That cost money every time it rained, and it’s been wet. Frosts took out a few cherries, but that’s common. Then the tail end of the tart crop ended up as juice when quality faltered with warm temperatures and a late-season, heavy rain that included hail.

All are challenges county cherry growers have faced for decades.

But their biggest obstacle in 2017 had nothing to do with frosty mornings, flying pests or wet weather.

Even the domestic market for cherries has stabilized and grown.

It’s foreign competition that threatens to put county cherry growers out of business.

Much will be at stake on Sept. 11 when three longstanding representatives of the cherry industry meet with members of the Trump administration in Washington, D.C.

“It’s been a challenge for the entire season,” said Phil Korson, one of the best friends cherry growers have ever had. “Then we get to the marketing side and we’re competing with unfair competition from abroad. That doesn’t make for happy growers.”

Mr. Korson, executive director of the Cherry Marketing Institute, will join Don Gregory and Mollie Woods in that trip to Washington. Ms. Woods is executive director of the Cherry Industry Administrative Board; Mr. Gregory is a leading cherry grower and processor who resides in Suttons Bay Township, and a CIAB member.

It could become known as one of the most important meetings in the history of the tart cherry — which is saying something. We think of farmers as being independent sorts who bristle at government intervention, but Enterprise archives are full of attempts to standardize and regulate the industry.

There have been attempts — some with federal grants — to increase exports. But the long history of government’s role in cherries has never included attempts to control the amount of fruit coming into the country.

That will change. In seeking help from the “America First” Trump administration, cherry industry leaders will be explaining their case that imports have flooded the juice market that domestic growers built by taxing themselves.

They’ve got solid numbers behind them. American cherry growers tax themselves by the pound to market cherries, and a big part of that effort has been spreading information about the health benefit Leelanau’s favorite fruit provides to consumers.

It’s worked. Some 240 million pounds of cherries were consumed in 2015 as juice concentrate, compared to just 46 million pounds in 2008.

USA cherry growers usually harvest between 250 and 350 million pounds of tarts, of which northwest Michigan — mostly Leelanau County — grows between one-third and half of the total.

However, from 2008 to 2015 imports grew from 22 million pounds to 224 million pounds.

So local growers continue to tax themselves to build a market for growers in places such as Turkey and Poland to exploit. Turkey enjoys duty-free status with America.

Early season frosts resulted in a short crop — sound familiar? — in Europe, so imports may go down in 2017. And Russia and Turkey are patching up their differences, which will reopen a market for Turkish orchardists.

But the underlying problem remains, and has potential to forever change the landscape of Leelanau County. What would the county be without its orchards?

We wish Phil, Don and Mollie all the luck in the world.

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