2018-06-14 / Views

Big diversion a must for tart crop

Tart cherry policy must be a nightmare for Republicans and Democrats alike.

A strictly laissez-faire approach toward the cherry harvest would rarely fit into the profitable confines of balanced supply and demand.

But an over-reaching cherry policy may result in a quagmire of private sector interference. So Democrats who might naturally believe in a larger government presence in the market could sour tart cherry growers known for their independence.

The harvest of 2018 has the potential to leave everyone in the tart cherry industry scrambling for stability. According to statistics from the Department of Agriculture, American growers are on pace to harvest 353 million pounds of tart cherries. That’s a 48 percent increase for a market that entered the summer with its cupboards still stocked with leftovers from the 2017 crop.

Most cherry growers have diversified by planting more sweets than tarts in recent years, which will help them weather what is expected to be a steep drop in tart prices. While Michigan farmers are expected to harvest nearly 12 percent more sweet cherries, cool and wet weather in Washington and Oregon are being blamed for a reduction of 26 percent in the national crop.

We know of no agricultural crop that routinely weathers the production ups and downs that routinely rock cherry prices. So if America plans to continue growing its own cherries, yes, there is a need to regulate how much of a bumper crop hits the market.

The tart cherry industry is one generation removed from similar conditions in the early and mid-1990s, when several bumper crops flooded the market and sent prices spiraling down to about 5 cents per pound.

Those prices might cover fuel and taxes. They won’t come close to showing a profit after the cost for labor, spraying and taxes are figured in.

Folks in the business say growers make a good living when tarts sell for 30 cents a pound. A harvest just about breaks even at 25 cents, and below that it’s a matter of how far farmers are willing to sink in debt.

Those payless years of the 1990s led to creation of the Cherry Industry Administrative Board, which has authority to force growers to destroy a portion of their crops to standardize prices. The nice names are “set-asides” or “diversions.” They aren’t popular when forced upon individual growers. But most realize that the alternative - overstocking the market - is far worse.

While the CIAB was designed to stabilize the market, the board’s rudder fell off this spring when a federal judge in Grand Rapids ruled that too many members belonged to the same federal cooperative. Consequently, three of four representatives from the northwest district were tossed off the CIAB, and an election was hastily called.

Ballots were due Friday. As of today, results have not been released. It’s hoped that new members can be seated by July 6, when a meeting has been called to determine a percentage of the crop that will need to be diverted.

The lawsuit that caused the ruckus was started by a grower on Old Mission Peninsula. One thought is that large cherry growers and producers have gained too much influence on the CIAB. Through that quasi-governmental vehicle they hold too much control of the tart cherry market.

The complaint has merit, although we’re not sure the suit will have any influence in slowing the trend. Similar observations have been made throughout the agriculture industry due to social and market trends. Smaller farm families equate to having fewer farms pass on to family members. As farms become more mechanized, more acreage is needed to pay for all that equipment. So “corporate farms” grow as family farms fall.

Ditto for brick-and-mortar businesses. Newspapers aren’t excluded.

Which brings us back to government policy. The tart cherry industry needs to walk as one in harvesting a 2018 bumper crop that has the power to crush prices.

We’re hopeful a new CIAB can be seated in time to exercise its power. A large diversion is needed. Otherwise, neither Republicans nor Democrats will be happy.

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