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Jim Engelsma serves on the interim committee developing the proposed Michigan Tree Fruit Commission. He spoke to apple growers during the 2013 Expo. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

Jim Engelsma serves on the interim committee developing the proposed Michigan Tree Fruit Commission. He spoke to apple growers during the 2013 Expo. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

Ten Michigan fruit growers may one day be known as the Founding Fathers of a new organization, the Michigan Tree Fruit Commission.

They turned out in force during the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable, and Farm Market Expo in Grand Rapids in December, making presentations during several educational sessions to make sure they talked to all apple, cherry, peach, and plum growers.

Growers of these four fruit crops will need to return ballots asking them to voluntarily tax themselves that they will probably receive in the mail in February.

In the words of Grand Rapids apple grower Jim Engelsma, the goal is to generate “a sustainable funding source” for fruit research and extension, with special emphasis on the four fruit experiment ­stations in Michigan.

In the last ten years, Michigan State University research and extension programs have lost half their state and federal funding, Engelsma said. “The good old days are gone, but I’m an optimist. The greatest days are still ahead.”

Phil Schwallier, MSU tree fruit educator and a grower in Engelsma’s neighborhood on Fruit Ridge, said that history had been shaped by past decisions, such as the creation of land-grant universities by the Morrill Act of 1862, creation of experiment stations by the Hatch Act of 1887, and creation of the Extension Service by the Smith-Lever Act of 1913. All are federal creations in which state and local governments share funding responsibilities. Both federal and state support have been faltering in recent years.

“You are making history now,” he told growers. “Thirty years from now, there will be new faces in this audience, the faces of your children and grandchildren. Voting yes is the right thing, the best thing, the only thing to do. We must make an investment from ourselves to ourselves and our children.”

Interim commission

Jim Nugent, a retired MSU fruit educator who now grows cherries near Traverse City, was named by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to chair the newly appointed interim commission. Nugent spoke to cherry growers, urging them to support the commission.

He hopes that, by growers showing their willingness to tax themselves and put up their own money, they will be able to leverage it to obtain matching money from the legislature as well as grant funding.

Nugent said a memorandum of understanding with MSU is being developed to assure that current funding levels are “held harmless,” which means that MSU must not reduce its commitment as new money comes from the growers.

There had been discussion about closing one of the four stations to focus attention on the remaining three, but Nugent urged the growers to support all four. “The fruit stations are interconnected,” he said. “All are important.”

Nugent noted that what growers in Washington State are doing was seen as somewhat of a model, in that growers are raising money to support research for their industry, but the Michigan commission will not be funded from interest earnings on an endowed fund. The Washington endowed pool of $32 million will generate about $1.3 million a year at 4 percent interest.

The Michigan commission will be set up under a Michigan law that prohibits building up funds. They must be spent soon after they are ­collected.

As proposed, apple growers will contribute 4 cents per hundredweight, providing about $400,000 in a normal year; tart and sweet cherry growers will pay $2.50 a ton, generating about $250,000 a year; peach growers will pay $2 per ton and generate $20,000; and plum growers will pay $4.50 a ton, generating $5,000 a year.

There will be only minor administrative costs. Existing organizations—the Michigan Cherry Committee, the Michigan Apple Committee, the Michigan Processing Apple Growers Association, and the Michigan State Horticultural Society—have agreed to absorb those duties. The ten members of the interim committee worked together to develop the proposal and explain it to growers at several public hearings and at educational meetings that will continue into February.

Committee members are Jim Nugent, Mark Miezio, Mike Van ­Agtmael, Jim Engelsma, Pat Goodfellow, Randy Willmeng, Fred ­Koenigshof, Rick Sayler, Steve Thome, and Nels Nyblad.

If created, the Michigan Tree Fruit Commission will have a nine-­member board with three each representing northern, central, and southern Michigan. •