In the northwest part of Michigan on the coast of one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes (Lake Michigan) lies Traverse City, dubbed the “Cherry Capital of the World,” and well known as the largest producer of cherries in the United States.
Farmers in the nearby Leelanau Peninsula sell their crop everywhere from roadside farm stands to stores and markets across the U.S., but not all of it ends up being used.
According to one frustrated Traverse City farmer, a little known government marketing program is essentially forcing cherry farmers to dump huge portions of their crop, leaving it to rot in the sun — ultimately making way for imports from other countries to be used instead.
Marc Santucci of the 80-acre Santucci farm shared the news on July 30 of this year in a Facebook post that went viral, garnering nearly 67,000 shares.
“These cherries are beautiful! But, we have to dump 14% of our tart cherry crop on the ground to rot. Why? So we can allow the import of 200 million pounds of cherries from overseas! It just doesn’t seem right…”
Government Order Forces Farmers to Dump Thousands Worth of Cherries
Santucci continued in the Facebook post aimed at unleashing his frustrations, and raising awareness about an agreement imposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that he believes is outdated and harmful.
“What do you think? Please share this on your Facebook page???. Just to let everyone know we are not allowed to donate or in any way use diverted cherries,” he continued on the Facebook post. “I have people who would buy them if I could sell them.”
The type of cherries grown, and left to rot by Santucci because of the rule, are tart cherries, which have a “very short shelf life.” Santucci grows about 30 acres worth of them each year, but a marketing order passed in 1937 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of the Agricultural Agreement Act imposes limitations on how much can be sold in order to make way for imports, which led to the wasting of a large portion of his cherry crop.
The act is a “vain attempt to prop up the price of cherries,” Santucci said to the Detroit Free Press in this article.
Perry Hedin of the Cherry Industry Administrative Board in DeWitt, MI told the Free Press that cherry growers have been paid better prices over the past 20 years because of the order, which was opted into by tart cherry growers and processors in 1995.
The stated goal of the rule is to add stability to what can be unpredictable yields crop from year-to-year for cherry growers.
But when it comes to independent, smaller-to-medium scale cherry farmers like Santucci who don’t have processing equipment, the rule can be a serious hindrance. Unlike other growers, Santucci doesn’t have the ability to process his product into dried cherries, cherry concentrate, or other products with a longer shelf life. And even if he could, the cherry board is still keeping “millions of pounds” of cherry concentrate off the market that could be sold, in order to make way for imports, he said.
Santucci says he has no choice but to leave their crops to rot, because he can’t process them and access to facilities that can is limited.
The order is voted on every five years by cherry producers, he says, but bigger growers with access to their own processing equipment benefit from it and continue to vote for it, to the detriment of smaller farmers.
Meanwhile, Santucci and many other cherry farmers are likely to continue losing market share to imports from areas like Turkey and Eastern Europe. He can’t sell them, and he says that growers are not allowed to donate them to food pantries or shelters, either. The CIAB sends out people to make sure they are left out to rot in order to enforce their marketing order.
“If I have to sell these excess cherries for less, I might not make that much more,” Santucci said. “But if we’re ever going to stop the increase in imports, we’ve got to compete with them head to head on every cherry we produce. If we don’t do that, we’re leaving the market wide open to them.”
The cherries that are diverted cannot be sold or given away, Santucci said in a Facebook post in response to the Free Press article. He hopes the cherry board will consider alternatives to the rule and perhaps that Congress will take up the issue.
“Dropping cherries on the ground isn’t going to change” the increasing low-cost cherry import dynamic, “and will probably only encourage it,” he said.
He added in a Facebook post that he’s not trying to keep out all imports, and that farmers do receive a small payment for the cherries that they are forced to dump.
He says he doesn’t want a bigger payment, he would like to see an end to the whole program, and encouraged people to write Congress asking for a change.
“I posted (the photo) because I want people to know that we sometimes do stupid things in this country in attempt to do the right thing — we end up doing the wrong thing,” Santucci said to UpNorthLive.com. “Unless we can make the people who count understand and know what’s going on, we’ll never change it.”
Michigan Farm Publication Responds
In response to the national outcry over the cherry marketing program and Santucci’s post, Paul W. Jackson, editor of Michigan Farm News, wrote this editorial piece addressing what he believes to be misconceptions surrounding the issue.
He reiterated through Kevin Robson, horticulture specialist with Michigan Farm Bureau, that the program is established by a majority vote of tart cherry growers.
“It’s also enforced by the growers themselves,” he said. “It is for the betterment of the industry as a whole, and a great number of cherry growers have benefited, even those who voted against it.”
Robson included a historical example of how prices remain stable because of the order.
“In 1988, when the entity was called the Cherry Administrative Board, growers voted to eliminate the marketing order. Prices began to follow a rollercoaster that led, within 10 years, to tart cherry prices that fell into single figures. Some growers went out of business.”
Robson also said that Santucci’s assertion that the cherries cannot be donated is untrue. However, his suggestions for tart cherry growers like Santucci who don’t have access to processing facilities would be difficult.
“Farmers can use the cherries for research and development, and they could make thousands of cherry pies and donate them to charity if they want,” Robson said. “Remember these are tart cherries. They need to be processed — and quickly — to make a viable product. They aren’t sweets that you just eat by the handful.”
Robson added that the cherry processors make the decision to ask farmers to dump cherries, and the dumping does not occur directly because of the marketing order itself.
But for all the people who’ve seen the Facebook posting of thousands of pounds of perfectly good cherries going to waste, the emotional aspect of this story, and subsequent calls for change, are clearly issues that the cherry industry will be forced to deal with going forward.
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