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Washington cherry and stone fruit growers will have another opportunity in the coming weeks to vote on a special assessment to fund research at Washington State ­University.

A year ago, in a tree fruit industrywide referendum, a majority of apple and pear growers voted in favor of a special assessment. However, only 44 percent of the cherry and stone fruit growers voted in favor.

The Washington State Department of Agriculture is planning to send out another ballot to approximately 2,225 cherry growers and 135 stone fruit growers on December 26. Ballots must be returned by January 16. The proposed assessment rates are $1 for stone fruits (the same rate as for apples and pears) and $4 for cherries.

Funds collected through the special assessment, which apple and pear growers began paying with the 2012 crop, will be used in the following ways:

  • To create endowed chairs focusing on research areas of specific interest to the industry;
  • To create new positions in information and technology transfer to focus on industry priorities and accelerate the transfer of information to growers and shippers;
  • To support and expand research orchards in Prosser and Wenatchee to develop and evaluate cutting-edge technologies and practices.

The special assessment on apples and pears will end in eight years or when the target of $27 million has been raised, whichever comes soonest. If cherry and stone fruit growers approve the special assessment, they will pay it either for eight years or until $5 million has been raised.

Orlin Knutson, an organic grower in Mattawa, feels it’s important for the cherry industry to follow the lead of apple and pear growers in supporting research at WSU.

“We’re becoming more and more dependent on finding ways to be more efficient and to compete globally,” he said. “I think if we sit on our hands, we’re going to be quickly falling behind.”

The Northwest cherry industry produced a record 23 million packed boxes of cherries this season. With more crops of over 20 million boxes likely in the future, it will be critical to provide good quality fruit to the customers by addressing all aspects of production through ­storage, packing, and marketing, Knutson said.

While some innovative growers have been trying out new ideas, such as stemless cherries and different training systems, the modern cherry orchard requires a considerable investment. He believes the industry needs the direction, concentration of effort and focus, and credibility that researchers can provide.

“There’s not a lot of room for just throwing out an idea here and there—it’s pretty expensive,” he said. “If you can have research-based decisions to go on, everyone likes that, including the banker.”

Stuart McDougall of McDougall and Sons, Wenatchee, said the whole industry is in a fragile state at certain times of the season. With the new varieties that are being produced, the season now has two production peaks instead of one. He thinks the industry could benefit from more research on production issues, such as diseases, as well as an economic evaluation.

“I think WSU has really worked hard to get as much as they can done for the industry, and, in the future, it will require some additional revenue. I don’t think they’re going to get that from anywhere else.”

West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee, said growth of the industry will drive the need for research. The industry has been transitioning to new varieties, such as Sweetheart and Skeena, that are more precocious and give better yields and fruit size. Challenges associated with this include problems such as decay, pitting, and overcropping that the industry didn’t experience with Bing.

As the industry strives to expand markets, it will need to address packaging and other issues relating to shipping cherries to distant destinations, he said.

Approval of the special assessment on cherries and stone fruits would also allow the stakeholders who are working with WSU on enhancing tree fruit research to represent the entire industry and be more effective, Mathison added.

Gip Redman, chair of the Washington State Fruit Commission, said approval of the assessment would allow cherry and soft fruit growers to have a voice at WSU and to have additional research directed towards cherry issues.

“Because we have so many acres planted and the markets are going to have a lot more cherries to digest, if they’re not high quality, they’re going to go to the process market,” he said. “I think there’s a constant need to keep improving.”

Assessment rate

It’s thought that in the last referendum, some cherry growers might have balked at paying $4 a ton while the assessment rate on other fruits was $1 a ton.

“It seems like it’s significantly higher,” Knutson acknowledged. “But I think it’s necessary to really drive the research we need in order to be competitive. If you don’t get enough critical mass of money out of cherries, you’re not going to be able to have the caliber of program we need.”

Bruce Allen, a member of the WSU Tree Fruit Endowment Advisory Committee, said that, considering the gross revenue per acre received from cherries versus other fruits, the rates are not disproportionate.

“For the last twenty years, cherries have been more profitable than apples, and that’s why we’ve seen such an investment in the cherry industry in terms of new acreage, new varieties, and extended marketing,” he said. “But, cherries have been profitable for all growers, pretty much throughout the world, and there have been extensive plantings throughout the world. The ability to develop and maintain a competitive edge is something every cherry grower should think about.”

Ten or fifteen years ago, when growers planted cherries, it wasn’t necessarily important what system, what density, or what varieties they planted, Allen said. “Today, in a more competitive environment, that you make the most effective decisions is going to be critical to your long-term viability as a cherry grower.”

Apple and pear growers began paying their special assessment on the 2012 crop. Already, WSU has filled a new position of Extension tree fruit leader and created a new endowed research pomologist position. Both will be based at the Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee.

Results of the cherry and stone fruit referendum should be announced in early February. If a majority of growers vote in favor, the special assessment would go into effect for the 2013 crop.