Courtesy Washington State Fruit Commission

The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission’s board voted unanimously at its April 5 meeting to send out a second referendum to Washington cherry and soft fruit 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 was $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, but 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 stone fruit growers, 24 were in favor, also a 44 percent favorable vote.

Dr. Jim McFerson, manager of the Research Commission, said it is hoped that the new referendum, which will be conducted through the Washington State Department of Agriculture, can be sent out in late fall or early winter when growers are not busy harvesting their crops. It takes several months to prepare for a referendum, but a small-business impact assessment will not be required this time, as it was conducted for the first referendum. The proposed assessment rate will be the same, at $4 a ton.

The Research Commission made its decision based on a recommendation from the Washington State Fruit Commission.

At their March meeting, Fruit Commission board members attributed the lack of support for the special assessment among soft fruit growers to an incomplete mailing list and a lack of information about why it was necessary. B.J. Thurlby, Fruit Commission president, said the commission has worked with packers to make the mailing list more accurate and complete. The Fruit Commission board voted to support a second referendum with the proviso that the Research Commission conduct an educational campaign to explain to growers how the special assessment would be used.

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 has begun 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.

McFerson said cherry and soft fruit growers need to be on board so they can benefit from research on new varieties as well as new growing techniques and pest management strategies, etc., and continue to be among the world’s most competitive producers.

Should the cherry referendum pass this time, the additional $4 a ton assessment would generate about $600,000 to $700,000 a year, assuming a total cherry crop of 150,000 to 175,000 tons annually. It is collected on both fresh and processed fruit.