Fruit industry leaders and Michigan State University officials met at the Clarksville Horticultural Research Station on August 26 to sign an important document—a letter of agreement between the university and fruit growers.

In effect, it said, the industry agrees to give the university money to maintain infrastructure at the four fruit research stations, and the university agrees not to use the funds to replace or reduce current funding for Michigan tree fruit research and extension positions or programs.

Members of the board of the new Michigan Tree Fruit Commission met with Michigan State University officials to sign a letter of agreement, pledging mutual financial support. (Richard Lehnert)

Members of the board of the new Michigan Tree Fruit Commission met with Michigan State University officials to sign a letter of agreement, pledging mutual financial support.
(Richard Lehnert/Good Fruit Grower)

Twelve people signed the document—three members of the university and nine fruit growers who are directors of the newly formed Michigan Tree Fruit Commission. Everybody gathered for a picture of what they all hope will be a historic event.

The commission was formed early this summer, after growers of apples, peaches, plums, and tart and sweet cherries voted to create it as a unit of state government. (See Good Fruit Grower article Michigan growers petition to create Tree Fruit Commission.) During their August meeting, commission board members agreed on a budget for the year.

The commission will collect an estimated $780,000 this year from the checkoff authorized by growers, and the board agreed to give at least $425,000 of that to MSU’s four stations to maintain infrastructure—orchards, buildings, roads, and machinery. Some of the money will be held in reserve for other research and extension needs, although rules require that  funds be spent within a year of their collection.

The board members, led by chair Jim Nugent, a cherry grower who retired from his university position as coordinator of the Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Station in Traverse City, also discussed plans to ask the state of Michigan to match the growers’ contribution and to ask allied fruit industries for in-kind contributions.

An invited speaker, Gordon LaFontaine, explained how the Michigan Turfgrass Foundation, of which he was executive director, worked with industry to receive donations of seed, chemicals, mowers, irrigation equipment, and other machinery to operate the turfgrass research center at Michigan State University. “They want to work with you,” he said. “You give them an opportunity to do something with you. It’s good for them that growers see the university using their products.”

He said the university has companies competing to give them equipment. “We don’t switch the height on the mowers,” he said, jokingly. “We just change mowers.”

Companies that donate equipment change it out every year, so the university always has use of the latest technology, he said.

The relationship between the university and the turfgrass industry is seen as a model for others.

According to a briefing paper, the Michigan Tree Fruit Commission will be a partnership between fruit farmers, Michigan State University, and the state of Michigan. The state Legislature will be asked to provide matching funds “to provide a new public private partnership to address critical tree fruit research needs.”

Activities of the new entity, including collection of assessments, will be conducted without additional administrative cost, as administration will be provided by the Michigan Apple Committee, the Michigan Cherry Committee, the Michigan State Horticulture Society, and the Michigan Processing Apple Growers.

Doug Buhler, head of AgBioResearch at MSU, said it was a great development and another step in the long partnership between the university and the fruit industry, but acknowledged that times have changed. Funding cuts at the university had made it necessary for the industry to step in, but “the work must go on,” he said.

In the picture are: Front row, from left, Doug Buhler, head of MSU’s AgBioReseach; Fred Poston, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources; cherry grower Jim Nugent, chair of the board; Ray Hammerschmidt, MSU Extension; and Chuck Reid, head of the land management office at MSU. Back row, from left, growers Jim Engelsma, Patrick Goodfellow, Mike VanAgtmael, Mark Miezio, Randy Willmeng, Fred Koenigshof, and Steve Thome. Grower Rick Sayler missed the photo.