A bountiful harvest came to nought for a Michigan farmer who was forced to dump more than 40,000 of ripe tart cherries on the ground rather than selling them. Marc Santucci
of Santucci Farm in Traverse City posted a photograph of the cherries dumped in Grand Traverse County in order to inform the public.
The dumping of the cherries came in compliance with the Cherry Industry Administrative Board’s cherry marketing order to maintain market price for the savoury fruit. For his part, Santucci said he would rather sell all of his crop at a lower price than sell some of it for a higher price and thus spoil the rest. The CIAB sends agents to farms to ensure that the cherries have indeed been dumped.
The CIAB was created in order to keep market prices high enough so that producers can make a profit. A surplus like the present one, if unregulated, was theoretically mean that producers would lose money because the price of sour cherries would drop below production costs. The CIAB has the force of law behind it because it serves as an “instrumentality” of the USDA, according to its website. The USDA administers it and growers are compelled to be members, who also have to pay a per-pound rate. This is also true in most other sectors of farming. Lawsuits by angry farmers have sometimes directed fire at the sometimes inscrutable by mandatory decisions made by organizations such as the CIAB.
Santucci says that the high cost of processing makes giving away cherries unfeasible. Exports, he said, are also out. In an article posted by the Michigan Farm Bureau, Santucci wrote, “[Executive director of the CIAB] Perry Hedin says that we can export our surplus cherries. How likely is that when we already lost our export market and are trying to fend off growing imports?” Large amounts of tart cherries are being imported from Turkey, especially for the industrial market. Imports of those products are unlimited, while CIAB rules have to take them into consideration and thus give American tart cherry farmers a smaller portion of the available market.
The CIAB and its advocates claim that production restrictions are actually in the best interests of growers. They believe that farmers, by limiting the availability of cherries, are better off than if left to the mercy of a free market. However, without adequate processing facilities for times of bumper crops, dumping food on the ground may continue. Up to 40 percent of the food produced in America is never consumed. Additionally, every year, about seven percent of crops are not harvested, according to a 2012 Natural Resources Defense Council report.
According to official statistics, Michigan’s cherry surplus topped 100 million pounds this year. The current tart cherry crop this year is estimated to have reached 351 million pounds — the third largest in the past 20 years -- meaning a surplus of 101 million pounds.
Chastened by what he said is the practice to “do stupid things in this country in an attempt to do the right thing,” Santucci is calling on citizens to write Congress and demand a change. Santucci said that growers are not allowed to give away the cherries, nor can they be donated to food pantries or shelters. -- we end up doing the wrong thing,” Santucci said. “Unless we can make the people who count understand and know what's going on, we'll never change it."
Santucci says growers themselves are not allowed to give away the cherries they have to dump. The waste cannot be donated to food pantries or shelters.
In his Facebook post, Santucci wrote: “These cherries are beautiful! But, we have to dump 14 percent 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.” Santucci wrote that he has willing buyers, but is not allowed to sell to them.
Tart cherries, which are used for example to make pies, are grown in just a few states. Michigan is the biggest producer. Because they have a shelf life of just two days, they require quick processing immediately after harvest. Usually they are frozen, or made into products such as pie filling, jam or concentrate.
The cherry crop can vary considerably from year to year. Just two years ago, a cold snap devastated Michigan farmers when delicate cherry blossoms were ruined by low temperatures. By regulation, the US Department of Agriculture limits the amount of cherries that can be sold each year in order to match demand and keep prices stable.
Cherries can be donated to food pantries, and processors can reserve stock to use later on to withstand a smaller crop. However, processors are often working at capacity and thus cannot take in the entire crop. Coordination between growers, processors, and food banks could resolve part of the problem.
Santucci said tart cherries imported from places like Czech Republic, Poland, and Turkey are filling ever larger segments of the market. Limiting domestic output, said Santucci, makes things worse for American growers. He told the Detroit Free Press: “In an effort to support the prices of cherries, we’re actually increasing imports.” When Michigan’s cherry crop faced a shortfall two years due to inclement weather, processors resorted to importing Eastern European cherries and thus gave further entry to foreign producers. Santucci added, “We weren’t trying to say we’re poor and we’re getting screwed.”
“We’re trying to say the system just doesn’t work.”