Nov 8, 2022
Tart cherry industry seeks brand protections

The U.S. tart cherry industry has seen significant changes in its marketing landscape in the past decade, with imports overshadowing the domestic supplies some years in the wake of weather events that limited production.

Now that imported tart cherry products have found a foothold in the U.S., the industry is seeking a novel way to protect and promote the Montmorency variety, which makes up more than 95% of the crop: differentiating the variety with a geographical indication (GI). The process involves petitioning the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to receive the (GI) designation, which gives the industry some added legal protection for the Montmorency variety.

U.S. production struggles

Up to three-fourths of the Montmorency variety is produced in Michigan, which has seen some weather-related production challenges in the past decade; the rest mostly comes from Utah, Washington and Wisconsin. The stark change in the import picture can be traced to 2012, said Julie Gordon, president of the Cherry Marketing Institute and executive director of the Michigan Cherry Committee.

That year, an early spring followed by a freeze devastated Michigan’s fruit crops, and cherry growers there saw the lowest production on record. For the most part, tart cherry harvests in the state have been in the 250- to 300-million-pound range since then, with the high point of 341 million pounds in 2016, Gordon said. The last two harvests, however, have been around 141 million and 172 million pounds.

That’s exacerbated a troubling trend that began in 2012: a flood of imports, mostly from Turkey, but also Serbia and Chile. In 2009, according to the CMI, the U.S. imported 35.9 million pounds. That had more than doubled in two years, followed by a jump to 184.1 million pounds of imports in 2012 when the domestic production plummeted.

Last year, Gordon said, tart cherry imports, mostly in the form of juice, hit a record 275.7 million pounds.

“Right now, they are seriously affecting our market, because they are imported at a price way below the cost of production,” said Gordon, citing subsidized production in some exporting countries.

Protecting the brand

In many cases, Gordon said, consumers don’t know they’re purchasing imported cherries. Virtually all tart cherries are processed into juice and other forms, such as canned and frozen, shortly after harvest because they rapidly break down.

To differentiate U.S. cherries, the industry has been focusing on promoting and branding the Montmorency variety, a tactic originally used in export markets and now in the U.S., to compete against imported tart cherries. The CMI developed a logo that highlights the variety, and the federal marketing order administered by the group has used grower assessments to fund health research on the variety.

Unfortunately, some of the imported cherries are following suit, bearing labels that they’re Montmorency cherries.

“We feel the need to protect our identity and the variety that we are primarily selling in the marketplace, and we want to protect our variety from being misused by other countries for marketing purposes,” Gordon said.

The Michigan Cherry Committee, funded by an $89,000 Specialty Crop Block Grant, hired attorney Chris Bardenhagen to lead the effort to receive the GI label.

Not all cherries are the same, Bardenhagen said, and U.S. tart cherry growers have taken steps to set the Montmorency variety apart from others in the market.

“We’re trying to find a way to help protect that and do some more brand building, and the geographic indication does both,” he said.

Over the winter, Bardenhagen worked with growers to discuss production practices and potential logos for the label, followed by consumer research on Montmorency cherries in the spring and summer. He recently filed the application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

“The USPTO unfortunately is very backlogged, so we might not be hearing anything back until spring,” Bardenhagen said. “It’s a legal process.”

The GI gives CMI the ability to file “cease and desist” letters against companies that mislabel products as made with Montmorency cherries. The CMI is also looking into seeking the GI for products sold in the European Union.

“It does give us the ability to sue in other countries if we believe something fraudulent or unfair is going on,” Bardenhagen said.

 A step farther

Gordon said the U.S. tart cherry industry has another possible solution to the rising imports and protecting the brand domestically: moving from the federal marketing order model to a research and promotion program. By doing so, domestic and imported tart cherries would be assessed, but countries that export to the U.S. would be represented on the board, as would importers of those products.

“It’s been a tough season, and the imports continue to come in. They’re not going to go away,” Gordon said. “ … It’s safe to say that this is an option we’re looking at. We’re starting to talk about it more and more.”

Gordon said grower education will be key in the decision, but she said the rising imports have shown that there is a demand for tart cherry products.

“The U.S. tart cherry growers alone cannot supply for the demand that we have built in the United States for tart cherry products,” she said. “ … We have to think about working with them (exporters) and leveling the playing field if our growers are going to stay in business.”

U.S. growers are already paying assessments through the marketing order, so expanding to a research and promotion order isn’t an extra fee on doing business, she said.

“We seriously are taking a step back and looking at the sustainability for the tart cherry industry, because these imports are not going to go away,” Gordon said. “How are our growers going to survive with the world marketplace the way it is today? We’ve got to shift and look at our options and think about our long-term stability.”


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