Washington cherry and stone fruit producers have one more week to return their ballots on a proposed special assessment to support research and extension at Washington State University. This is the second time the referendum is being run.

The Washington State Department of Agriculture sent out 1,480 ballots to cherry growers and 136 ballots to stone fruit growers on December 26. Returned ballots must be postmarked no later than January 16 to be counted. As of January 8, the Department of Agriculture had received 322 ballots from cherry producers and 33 from stone fruit growers.

In 2011, in an industrywide referendum, a majority of apple and pear growers voted in favor of a special assessment, but only 44 percent of the cherry and stone fruit growers voted in favor. The assessment on apples and pears will raise $27 million over the next eight years or so and will be used to create endowed chair positions focusing on research areas of specific interest to the pome fruit industry, create new positions in information and technology transfer, and expand research orchards in Prosser and Wenatchee.

If a majority of the ballots in the current referendum are in favor, cherry and stone fruit growers will pay an additional assessment equal to the research assessment they already pay—$4 a ton for cherries and $1 a ton on stone fruits—for the next eight seasons or until $5 million has been raised.

B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers, said the new WSU programs are envisioned to be money makers for growers in the long-term, and cherry growers need to participate.

“The return on investment is going to be there,” he said. “If we leave cherry growers out, they are putting themselves at risk of missing out on some specific opportunities. These endowed researchers who are coming in are game changers and the cherry growers want to be part of that—that’s my hope.”

Kelly Frost, commissions coordinator with the State Department of Agriculture, said that for the last referendum, the department sent out 1,760 cherry ballots and 563 stone fruit ballots. The number is smaller in the current referendum because the Washington State Fruit Commission cleaned up the list and deleted duplicates and people who were no longer in the business.

Despite the smaller number sent out this year, the number of cherry ballots returned so far already exceeds the total of 308 returned in the last referendum.
Should a majority vote in favor this time, the rule would become effective on about March 18 and the assessments would go into effect with the 2013 crops.