Sep 28, 2020Detroit Free Press report outlines challenges of tart cherry industry
They’re a treasured old-time sight in Michigan – cherries and the miles of orchards where they flourish Up North.
According to a Sept. 28 Detroit Free Press story, Michigan is the nation’s top producer of tart cherries, for great pies and jams; and ranked fourth for sweet cherries, sold in city markets nationwide and at rural roadside stands along Lake Michigan.
Michigan’s cherry juice has a big following as a health food and sport supplement, with fans at retirement centers and in the locker rooms of the Detroit Red Wings, Green Bay Packers and other pro teams.
But this season, there’s a new market for Michigan cherries: Voters.
A campaign ad for U.S. Senator Gary Peters features a bearded Michigan farmer, speaking out on why the state’s cherry growers are up against a threat worse than the much-feared hail, ravaging insects and labor shortages that have long given cherry farmers sleepless nights.
Now they have a fresh nightmare: Ultra-cheap cherries from Turkey. It’s a gripe familiar to countless Michiganders who’ve lost jobs to imported just-about-everything-else.
In Peters’ ad, cherry grower Nels Veliquette praises the senator for helping his industry battle the cheap imports.
“Sen. Peters was the one guy that showed up from the very beginning,” Veliquette narrates, over scenes of farmers on tractors and cherries glowing red on trees, then bouncing down conveyor chutes. “He came to the factory, he listened to the growers, he listened to the processors.”
The price difference seems shocking, almost unbelievable. That same gap in a car showroom would be like buying a loaded, full-sized import pickup for $10,000.
Evidence shows that Turkey’s government is heavily subsidizing its cherry industry, said Julie Gordon, president of the Cherry Marketing Institute, based in DeWitt near Lansing. The trade group has about 500 growers of tart and sweet cherries, many of whom grow both.
After filing a lawsuit last year, pushing for tariff protection, the tart growers at first had the upper hand. Four growers in Michigan, including Veliquette and one in Utah, filed a petition requesting import duties that would have amounted to more than $5 a pound on dried cherries, which Turkish exporters had been selling for less than $1 a pound, according to industry trade journals.
Their lawsuit triggered an investigation by the U.S. Department of Commerce, which found more than two dozen subsidy programs available to Turkish tart cherry producers, including export subsidies for dried cherries, incentives for farmers to plant fruit tree saplings, and one government hand-out providing 50% of the capital cost of new cherry processing facilities, according to documents obtained by the Free Press.
The evidence seemed compelling. And, sure enough, a year ago the U.S. cherry growers gained a favorable ruling from staff analysts at the all-powerful U.S. International Trade Commission. Unfortunately, the good news didn’t last. In January of this year, the agency’s panel of commissioners reversed the staff’s ruling, voting to do nothing, deciding that imported cherries were doing no harm to the domestic industry, Gordon said.
“The case was turned because they used the numbers that importers gave them, and not our U.S. numbers,” Gordon said.
An appeal would end up before the same commissioners.
“We invested over $2 million in that case and to appeal it, we just don’t have that kind of money,” she said.