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Gip Redman fears that Washington cherry growers will miss out on research that could benefit the industry.

Gip Redman fears that Washington cherry growers will miss out on research that could benefit the industry.

Geraldine Warner

The Washington State Fruit Commission is recommending that a second referendum be sent out to Washington cherry growers asking if they will approve a special assessment to fund research at Washington State University.

Last fall, tree fruit growers in the state received a ballot on whether to support an additional research assessment, equivalent to the amount they already pay, to the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission. The rate is $1 a ton on apples, pears, and soft fruits, and $4 a ton on cherries.

A majority of apple and pear growers voted in favor of a special assessment, which they will begin paying on the 2012 crop. A majority of cherry and soft fruit growers did not support the proposal.

The additional money collected on apples and pears, which should amount to $27 million over the next eight years, will help pay for six endowed research positions and five technology transfer, or extension, positions to work on research specifically to benefit the apple and pear industries. WSU is about to begin the hiring process for an endowed chair in pome fruit horticulture and physiology and a tree fruit extension team leader. Part of the funds will be used to update WSU’s research orchards in Prosser and Wenatchee.

Gip Redman, Fruit Commission chair, said during the commission's board meeting on March 14 that he fears that the cherry industry is missing 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 would be provided at the level we think it should be provided.”

Only 44 percent of the 308 cherry ballots returned were in favor of the special assessment. A simple majority was required for it to pass. Of the 54 ballots returned by soft fruit growers, 24 were in favor—also a 44 percent yes vote.

Fruit Commission board members attributed the lack of support among cherry growers to an incomplete mailing list and a lack of information about the assessment. B.J. Thurlby, Fruit Commission president, said the commission has worked with packers to make the mailing list more accurate and complete. Redman said there are probably about 1,500 growers in the state, and many did not receive ballots in the first referendum. Growers he has talked to would favor the special assessment, though some questioned why they were being asked to pay $4 a ton, while apple and pear growers pay only $1. The higher assessment rate is based on the higher value of cherries both on a per-ton and per-acre basis.

According to the Good Fruit Grower’s calculations, an apple orchard yielding 20 tons per acre (about 50 bins) with a value of $400 a ton ($175 a bin) would generate $8,000 per acre, whereas a cherry orchard yielding 8 tons per acre with a value of $2,000 per ton would generate $16,000 per acre.

Assessment rate

Tom Butler, a Research Commission board member, said the group that decided to run the first referendum didn’t discuss the assessment rates at length but simply decided to ask for the same rate as the regular assessment. Afterwards, it became apparent that few growers knew how much they were already paying. The assessment is deducted from growers’ returns by the warehouse along with other packing house charges. The research assessments are paid on both fresh and processed fruit.

Fruit Commission board members voted unanimously to recommend to the Research Commission that it run another referendum at the $4 per ton level for cherries. Thurlby said it was hoped that the Research Commission would make sure growers were informed about the benefits of supporting more research on cherries and about the justification for the different assessment rate.
Should the referendum pass this time, the additional $4 a ton assessment would generate about $600,000 to $700,000 a year, assuming a total crop of 150,000 to 175,000 tons annually.

Asked how soon another ballot could be sent out, Ben McLuen, assistant director of development at WSU, said it would likely 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 impact on small businesses. The assessment could not be collected until the 2013 crop year.