Aug 16, 2013
Michigan growers consider forming tree fruit commission

To pay for research activities, Michigan’s apple, cherry, peach, nectarine and plum industries are pondering the creation of a state tree fruit commission.

Supporters of the new commission say it’s become abundantly clear that the funding model for the state’s four tree fruit research stations – which are overseen by Michigan State University (MSU) – is unsustainable. In the last decade, budget cuts have eliminated about half the funding those stations used to receive. A new, sustainable funding model is necessary, according to Phil Korson, director of the Cherry Marketing Institute.

“Being able to hire and retain the best and the brightest tree fruit researchers we can find and making sure the stations are maintained to be state-of-the-art field laboratories is a priority,” Korson wrote. “We need research stations that are built on a strong partnership and focused on the future needs of the tree fruit industry.”

The proposed Michigan Tree Fruit Commission would raise funds directly from the state’s fruit industry. Backers of the commission idea have been circulating petitions among fruit growers. Once they get 200 signatures, they’ll be able to ask the director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to establish a temporary committee, composed of tree fruit producers, to develop the long-term commission. The hope is to have the commission in place for the 2014 crop year, according to Korson.

In mid-August, Dawn Drake, manager of Michigan Processing Apple Growers, said the petitioners had gathered enough signatures to take the next step – but it’s not a done deal by any means.

Once the temporary committee works out the details, the goal is to unveil the commission proposal at the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market EXPO in December. After that, winter meetings would be held to give growers more information. By March, growers would vote to decide whether or not they wanted a new commission, Drake said.

If the commission is approved, growers will have to pay to fund it – but it’s too early to know how much exactly they’ll have to pay. Commission backers hope the Michigan Legislature can be convinced to provide matching funds, she said.

The tree fruit commission won’t be replacing or superseding any other fruit committees. The funds it raises would support station upkeep, research projects and Extension activities, Drake said.

“If we want to continue to be a major force in the fruit industry in North America, our industry has to step up and help support itself,” said Phil Schwallier, owner of Schwallier’s Country Basket in Sparta, Mich., and an MSU Extension educator. “This is an opportunity for (Michigan) growers to take hold of their own future and carry it out.”

Schwallier has been helping get the commission concept off the ground. He said growers are showing interest and asking questions. Commission backers are open to grape and berry growers joining in – thus creating a Michigan Fruit Commission – but that doesn’t seem likely at this point, he said.

Matt Milkovich

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