Contact: Kevin Robson, 517-679-5353
LANSING — In a classic example of what can happen when emotions trump fact on social media, a poorly-informed Facebook post from a northwestern Michigan tart cherry grower last week went viral, leaving a trail of destructive misinformation in its wake.
He posted a photo of tart cherries on the ground—fruit he implied a federal cherry marketing order forced him to dump. His online claim of dumping 40,000 pounds of tarts quickly saw more than 30,000 Facebook shares and garnered 5,000 comments, mostly in sympathy with the farmer.
But according to Kevin Robson, horticulture specialist at Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB), the post demonstrated either (a) little understanding of the cherry marketing order, or (b) politically-charged interest in changing that order. That’s equivalent to chasing the wind, Robson said, because the order itself is a product of—and approved by—a majority 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 benefitted, even those who voted against it.”
Administered by the Cherry Industry Administrative Board (CIAB), the cherry marketing order this year required processors to keep 29 percent of this year’s bumper crop off the usual North American markets (pies, sweetened desserts, etc.) to stabilize both prices and supply, which in cherries has been notoriously volatile. (The farmer’s post said he was ordered to dump only 14 percent of his fruit.)“In 1988, when the entity was called the Cherry Administrative Board, growers voted to eliminate the marketing order,” Robson said. “Prices took a rollercoaster ride that, in 10 years, had tart cherry prices into single digits. Some growers went out of business.”
Responding to prices below the cost of production, tart cherry growers in seven states petitioned the USDA to put a new order and administrative board in place, and prices began to stabilize. But some growers took exception to the order, including, presumably, the Up North Facebook poster.
According to reports on UpNorthLive.com, that grower said he’d “rather sell all of his cherries for a lower price than sell some of them for a higher price and have to dump the rest.”
But the reality is that the marketing order stabilizes prices at profitable levels, Robson said, and it’s already been proven that price stability doesn’t happen when tart cherry marketing is left solely to supply and demand.
“Last year we had a [national] crop of 249 million pounds, and this year it’s projected to be 351.3 million,” said Perry Hedin, executive director of the Cherry Industry Administrative Board. “That means our best guess is a surplus of 101 million pounds, which is far too much for the market.
“We take our production estimate in June and add it to what handlers have in their free inventories, which gives us our supply,” he said. “We compare that to demand, which is a three-year average of sales, plus other factors including market growth projections, and compare total supply to projected total demand.”
If that entire surplus went to market, Robson said, prices would fall below production costs—the exact situation that led to growers to resurrect the marketing order in the first place.
“Most people would rather have 71 percent of something than 100 percent of nothing,” he said.Another of the farmer’s Facebook fallacies came in suggesting growers can’t donate or use the dumped cherries “in any way.”
“That’s just not true,” Robson said. “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.
“But remember these are tart cherries. They need to be processed—quickly—to make a viable product. They aren’t sweets that you just eat by the handful.”
The Facebook post also misplaces the cherry-dumping blame on the marketing order, Robson said, when it’s actually the processor who makes the decision and asks farmers to leave fruit in the orchard.
“We regulate processors, not growers,” Hedin said. “This year, we told processors that, based on this formula, you should retain 29 percent of what you handle from the North American market.
“But processors still have options. They can take the surplus and sell it into the export market or can use it for new product development. The existing market gets filled first. But after that, processors can donate the surplus to charity. It’s difficult to coordinate, but it is an available option.”
How processors handle the surplus is really up to them, said cherry grower and processor Ben LaCross.“A processor could make up that difference with new product launches or exports,” he said. “A Facebook post allows people to get their frustrations out and to get sympathy from the general public, and I’ve seen many comments saying things need to change, but no one offers a solution.
“Maybe one solution is to limit imports, and I agree that imports are a real big issue,” LaCross said. “But how do you go about limiting imports and not have political ramifications that go far beyond the cherry industry? That’s protectionism. You can’t take one year’s experience with the marketing order and make a generalization about its functionality. You need to evaluate the long-term impact, and when you do that, you can see that it’s been a great tool for increasing sales, the farm-gate value of tart cherries and the economic viability of the industry.”
All in all, Robson said, the order shows that tart cherry growers are working together to solve their problems, and not even a viral Facebook post can trump their cooperation.
“It is a fact that growers have sustained better prices at the farm gate level in the years when there has been a federal marketing order compared to years when there wasn’t,” Robson said. “If one person wants to fight the industry and his fellow farmers’ cooperation via social media, that’s his prerogative. But the majority of growers have benefitted from their remarkable mutual cooperation and ability to work together. The facts show it works.
“Social media only shows emotion and opinion.”
NOTE: A version of this article was originally published in Michigan Farm News.