Second cherry referendum considered
Washington stone fruit growers would vote again on a special research assessment.
The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission is considering rerunning a referendum asking Washington soft fruit growers if they are willing to pay a special assessment to fund research at Washington State University.
In a referendum last fall, apple and pear growers voted to pay a special assessment in addition to the regular research assessment, but cherry and soft fruit growers voted it down. The proposed assessment rate was equal to the rate they already pay: $4 a ton for cherries and $1 for soft fruits. The rate is $1 a ton for apples and pears. Research assessments are paid on both fresh and processed fruit.
The additional funds collected through the special apple and pear assessment, which should amount to $27 million over the next eight years, will pay for new research and extension positions and research orchard updates, all focusing exclusively on pome fruits.
Only 44 percent of the 308 ballots returned in the cherry referendum were in favor of the special assessment. A similar percentage of stone fruit growers voted in favor. Simple majorities were required for the measures to pass.
At a meeting in March, the Washington State Fruit Commission’s board members attributed the failure of the cherry referendum to an incomplete mailing list and a lack of information about why cherry growers were being asked to pay $4 a ton, compared with $1 a ton for the other fruits.
Gip Redman, Washington State Fruit Commission chair, said he fears that the cherry industry will miss out as WSU recruits some of the best researchers in the world to work on pome fruit issues.
“We’re now no longer at the table,” he said. “Our voice has been taken away. Because of the financial crisis at the university, there’s no guarantee that cherry research will be provided at the level we think it should be provided.”
B.J. Thurlby, Fruit Commission president, said the cherry mailing list has since been updated to make it more complete and accurate. The Fruit Commission board recommended unanimously that the Research Commission consider running the referendum again and ensure that growers understand why a rate of $4 a ton is called for.
Tom Butler, a Research Commission board member, said the higher rate for cherries reflects the higher value of the crop on both a per-ton and per-acre basis.
A special assessment of $4 a ton on cherries would generate between $600,000 and $700,000 a year based on a crop of 150,000 to 175,000 tons. It would be collected on fresh and processed fruit.
Jim McFerson, manager of the Research Commission, said it seemed clear, given the Fruit Commission’s unanimous vote, that it should move ahead with another referendum. He said a rate of less than $4 on cherries would limit the amount of research that could be done.
“It’s the only thing fiscally that makes sense,” he said. “A dollar a ton doesn’t amount to much. It would probably not fund more than one or two projects. You don’t attract researchers to work on a crop where there’s less funding.”
The apple and pear assessment goes into effect with the 2012 crop this fall, but the cherry assessment could not begin until the 2013 crop.
Ben McLuen, assistant director for development at WSU, said it would probably take at least three months to prepare for another referendum, and as long as six months if the state requires another study of the potential impacts on small businesses.
McFerson expected that the soft fruit referendum would be run again also.