Viral Tart Cherry Post Has Growers Picking Sides

August 18, 2016 09:32 AM

USDA marketing orders are a common tool in agriculture. They help determine a minimum price for farmers for their products such as dairy and produce. But certain stipulations of marketing orders pertaining to tart cherries have set off a firestorm in social media. 

You may have seen a picture posted online by Traverse City, Mich., tart cherry grower, Marc Santucci, after dumping a percentage of his crop on the ground to rot, blaming the industry’s marketing order and imports coming into the United States. 


Growers say the tart cherry industry is complicated. The crop is not like sweet cherries where you can eat them by the handful. They’re even regulated differently. Tart cherries are commonly used for pies or juice. Time is important. It’s a very perishable crop. 

What began as a massive pile of 1,000 lbs. is now just a thin layer of red, but the impact of Santucci’s online post is still shaking the industry. 

“If you really think through what’s going on, I believe everyone will come to the same conclusion,” he says. 

Not every producer is pleased with the attention. 

“It’s created mistrust to consumers about the tart cherry industry,” says Cedar, Mich., grower Ben LaCross. “I’m a grower myself. I want to be able to harvest everything I grow, but I also look at the long-term health of the industry and viability of the industry.” 

This taps into an underlying disagreement around the industry’s rules for this crop. Tart cherry growers have their own federal marketing order made up of their own producers. The purpose is to stabilize returns and make sure supplies don’t flood the marketplace. 

“It’s so we don’t pack an extreme amount of inventory one year and depress market prices the next year,” LaCross says. “We know what the supply and demand has been for the past 20 years.” 

That’s why the processor can’t accept all supplies under the order during years when yield or production increases. This year is one of those times. USDA says production jumped nearly 40% this year. 

Processors are keeping just 29% of what it’s getting from the North American growers based on a surplus of production. That’s this year’s percentage of supply against demand. 

“I understand we cannot pack an excess hundred million pounds of fruit in 2016 when we know in 2017, we can only sell 250 million pounds,” LaCross says. “What would that do to prices next year? That would tank them.” 

Tart Cherry Debate

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Growers don’t have to dispose the crop every year. Santucci says this is the first year he’s dumped his crop since 2009. The order accepted all of his cherries the last six years. 

LaCross says, “If you didn’t like the marketing order this year, did you like it last year when you were allowed to harvest all of your crop?” 

“I think people were sold on this marketing order being the panacea and I don’t think it is,” says Santucci. 

Santucci says it’s not just U.S. Production rules that bother him. The United States is importing over 200 Million pounds of tart cherries into the U.S. Market from countries in Eastern Europe and Turkey.

“When I learned that forty percent of our consumption was imported cherries and we were dumping cherries on the ground to try to prop of the price of cherries, I felt like the little boy from Holland putting our finger in the dike because if you don’t control the whole market, you don’t control any of the market,” says Santucci. 

Santucci says the Industry should focus on the domestic market first.

“The first thing we have to do is sell our cherries at a price that’s going to keep the imports out. Initially, it may be a few years at a lower price but now we’re selling more cherries,” says Santucci. 

He’s no stranger to global trade. He was once an Economist for the Office of the United States Trade Representative. He also worked as the Director of the Office of International Development for the state of Michigan. 

“If Turkey is able to provide a percentage of our demand at a competitive price, I believe I have to live with that and I’m willing to live with that,” says Santucci. 

“It’s a challenge for our industry, but we need to look at the factors behind the imports. Those are extremely low-cost, Government supported imports that are coming into the industrial market. If we were to go and try to compete against those imports on price, there would be nothing left for the farmer. There would be no margin left over for the farmer,” says LaCross. 

LaCross says that would be the worse for farmers than having to dump once in a while. But someone who spent his entire life in the Industry and is involved at every level, he recognizes the import situation needs to be addressed. 

“Our industry has just started to get its head around the import problem over the last twelve months. I’m very confident we can make an impact on the import situation,” says LaCross. 

In an industry that includes life-long farmers...

“Some of my first memories were helping my parents shake and harvest fruit,” says LaCross. 

And ‘new’ producers finding their way in...

“I can’t call myself a farmer in a sense of spending my life in the dirt, but I do consider myself a farmer now,” says Santucci. 

Both agree more discussion is needed. It’s a process already underway thanks to the spoils of a bumper year. 

The Federal Marketing Order makes sure growers receive an income. LaCross says times were tough without it. He remembers when prices were below the cost of production. LaCross says the order is creating stability in the market. Santucci says he wasn’t in the cherry industry before the order. 

Processors and growers do have options besides dumping the cherries. That’s why some growers are upset at the post. They can take the excess and sell it to the export market, use for new product development, research or donate it. The processor could store the crop for the future but the grower may not get paid for it. 

Santucci says he’s just dumped his crop in the past but will look for other options another year. 

The marketing order isn’t all or nothing. The industry has an opportunity to renew or discontinue the Federal Marketing Order every six years by holding a grower and handler referendum. To renew, more than fifty percent of the voters, a vote by a number or tonnage, must vote yes. 



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Spell Check

Terry Sorenson
Sturgeon Bay , WI
9/13/2016 09:48 PM

  Reading Mr. Holifield's comments, I just really have to laugh at his misunderstanding of the industry, assuming he actually is from Indiana, where there are no tart cherries grown. He has virtually no understanding of the tart cherry/tree fruit industry. I am also a little offended by his comments regarding age of the grower's interviewed, and his statements that young growers expect everything on a golden spoon. He is much misinformed. To this point, Ben LaCross has more years of growing experience than does that Mr Santucci. The marketing order exists to not only maintain a balance of cherry production to the market, it exists to maintain an adequate reserve in the event of a crop failure. 2012 was a massive crop failure for our industry. We had an inadequate supply of cherries in the reserve to meet domestic market demand. Hence, imports surged because of that. Couple that crop failure with a drastic change in currency valuations, we haven't regained the lost markets. For the record Mr. Holifield, the government isn't controlling the supply of tart cherries, it is a super majority of growers that are controlling the supply of cherries to the free market by referendum. Additionally, cherries that are set aside are free to be sold to compete with product being imported into the US. It is not how Mr Santucci describes it to be. Do a little research before you analyze an industry and insult the generation that is coming to be the few of us left to be in the business of growing tart cherries.

Rockville, MD
8/18/2016 12:57 PM

  Tart cherries are recommended by many for treating inflammation caused by a multitude of ailments. Recently, our orthopedic practice suggested (rest, ice, medication and) tart cherry juice for a painful knee injury. We were already familiar with its benefits for treating gout and arthritis. From our own experience, inflammation and resulting pain are very quickly addressed with tart cherry juice. Also, the benefit of being able to come off medication much sooner is a big plus. Tart cherries and their juice are hard to find and expensive. But, well worth the hunt and price. Now, we buy it whenever we see it to keep on hand. Perhaps better marketing of the cherries would make their benefits common knowledge. This could be a wise investment.

Terry Sorenson
Sturgeon Bay, WI
8/18/2016 05:47 PM

  Ben, Well said! We have a tool in this industry to save farmers, and manage inventory. How is this bad for all of us in the industry? I'm clueleless, if someone comes up with something better, we'd all listen. This is tree fruit! No year is the same! Terry Sorenson Wisconsin


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