In one of the worst examples of government regulation and intrusion, the US government ordered Michigan cherry farmers to literally dump 30 million pounds of cherries on the ground. Even worse, many cherry farmers are being driven out of business because of the outrageous rules.
The practice is coming to national light because of a new lawsuit against the government filed by a cherry processor. A judge currently is considering issue.
“The food pantry shelves are bare, people going hungry, and here we are dumping millions of pounds of cherries on the ground,” Michigan cherry grower Rob Manigold said of the 2009 incident. That was the same year farmer Leonard Ligon dumped 72,000 pounds of tart cherries along a road outside Traverse City, Michigan, to protest US Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations on his state’s cherries.
Dumping along the road was one of the few things that Ligon could legally do with the cherries he had grown on his own property. Under the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act, a bureaucracy called the Cherry Industry Administrative Board (CIAB) tells farmers how many tart cherries they can sell. The board ordered Michigan farmers to keep 65 percent of their crop off the market in 2009, Bridge Magazine reported. Last year farmers were allowed to sell only 90 percent of their crop.
The Bizarre World of US Cherry Regulation
The way in which the USDA regulates cherries is completely bizarre. The CIAB’s rulings only affect one kind of cherry, tart cherries, and they only cover cherries grown in one state: Michigan.
That means a tart cherry farmer in Oregon is free to sell all of his crop, but a tart cherry farmer on Michigan’s Northwest Lower Peninsula is not. Nor are there any restrictions on tart cherries imported from other countries. That has actually created a situation in which the US imported tart cherries from Canada and even Poland as Michigan farmers were dumping their crop on the ground.
“It’s not that we didn’t have the capacity to process, hold or sell the cherries. They’re telling us that if we do, it would somehow be destructive,” Bill Sherman of cherry processor Burnett Foods in Elk Rapids, Michigan, said. “There were growers that literally dumped them alongside the road.”
Under the restrictions, the CIAB puts severe limitations on how many cherries can be sold out of Michigan. Tart cherries are used as an ingredient in juice, baked goods, pie fillings and jams or jellies.
That leaves Michigan farmers at a disadvantage if they grow a large crop. It also forces Michigan processors like Sherman to import tart cherries from Ontario or other states even as farmers in their area are throwing cherries out.
1930s System Hurts Modern Farmers
The regulations on tart cherries were set up during the Great Depression of the 1930s in an attempt to protect farmers. The idea was to keep crops off the market and drive prices up. Nowadays some farmers complain that the regulations make cherry farming unprofitable.
“The farther I get away from the tart cherry business the better as far as I’m concerned,” Manigold told The Traverse City Record-Eagle in 2009. “My whole focus right now is to convert to wine grapes.”
Wine grapes, unlike tart cherries, are not regulated by the USDA.
“All I’m saying to the tourists and joggers and others in this town is that life on the farm is not always profitable,” Ligon, the cherry dumping farmer, said, “and we’re losing our (cherry) producers.”
Low tart cherry prices are making it difficult to farm at a time when farm-related costs keep rising, farmer David White complained. White believes the restrictions can raise tart cherry prices but they also prevent high prices in the market which could benefit farmers.
The restriction “takes the peaks and valleys out (of cherry prices), but it really knocks the peak off,” White said. “Our costs on the farm keep going up. Some of our biggest costs, spraying for insects and fungal diseases, keep ratcheting up. And you know the price of fuel is going up. And we’re not seeing the results in our pricing. When you adjust for inflation, I think we’re going the wrong direction.”
System Called Outdated
“This is New Deal legislation when farming was 40 acres and a mule,” Sherman said. “Agriculture is nothing like that now.”
Sherman’s company has sued the USDA in an attempt to get the tart cherry restrictions overturned. Burnett’s attorneys claim that the CIAB is dominated by representatives of the frozen cherry business who set quotas in such a way as to drive up prices for their products.
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