Growers need to come to the table with funds so they can direct how they're used, says MSU Extension agent Phil Schwallier.

Growers need to come to the table with funds so they can direct how they’re used, says MSU Extension agent Phil Schwallier.

At field days across Michigan this summer, fruit industry leaders bearing clipboards have been seeking grower signatures asking for creation of a Michigan Tree Fruit Commission.

The idea came up in June and has been on a fast track since.

Phil Korson, executive director of the Cherry Marketing Institute, said the goal is to gather at least 200 fruit grower signatures by September, submit them to the Michigan Department of Agriculture, flesh out a proposal, explain it to growers at winter horticulture meetings, and vote on it next March.

The new Tree Fruit Commission would be authorized to collect money from Michigan apple and cherry growers to maintain and improve Michigan’s four tree fruit research stations, direct funds toward important research projects, and assure that important research and extension positions remain filled with the best people.

While no exact figures have been proposed, the basic idea seems to be to raise about a half million dollars a year from growers and use that to leverage matching grants from the Michigan Legislature and the federal government and to solicit in-kind contributions of equipment and supplies from allied industries.

“We need to do this if we are to get the science we need going into the future,” Korson said. State support for research and extension at Michigan State University has dropped in recent years, Korson said—the state’s economy was among the hardest hit at the start of the Great Recession in 2007.

“The state’s budget for university research has been cut 50 percent,” he said. “We can’t maintain the facilities we have.”

The idea of creating a Tree Fruit Commission came up in a conversation between Korson, a key figure in the cherry industry, and Allyn Anthony, executive director of the Michigan State Horticulture Society. They then created a mini-task force that included Diane Smith at the Michigan Apple Committee, Dawn Drake at the Michigan Processing Apple Growers Association, Dr. Matt Grieshop at Michigan State University, and Phil Schwallier at the Clarksville Research Center.

Korson and Anthony said they were inspired in part by the growers in Washington State, who have voted to create a $38 million endowment to support tree fruit research. But the Washington plan channels most of the money to endowments supporting researchers rather than for facilities and facility improvements and specific research projects.

Close Clarksville?

Michigan State University had been considering closing the Clarksville experiment station and focusing resources on the other three—the Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Center at Traverse City, the Southwest Michigan Research and Extension Center at Benton Harbor, and the Trevor Nichols Research Center at Fennville.

During Ridgefest August 8, Grieshop made a strong pitch for stronger grower support of the Clarksville station. The Michigan Pomesters were holding Ridgefest, their second annual West Michigan Fruit Grower Tour, on Fruit Ridge north of Grand Rapids.

Fruit growers on Michigan’ s Fruit Ridge, where half the state’s apples are grown, have been somewhat disgruntled ever since the Clarksville station was opened in 1974 and the Graham station near Grand Rapids was closed. The “new” 440-acre station was not located on the Ridge. It is 40 miles east, half way between the Ridge and Michigan State University in East Lansing. The growers complain it is not convenient for anybody, growers or researchers, and it wasn’t in fruit country.

“I’m glad it’s not on the Ridge,” Grieshop told the crowd of 200 growers. “We need a place where we can do research on insects and diseases without worrying about creating a haven for them and infesting surrounding growers.”

Grieshop, who came to MSU six years ago and received tenure this summer, volunteered to make Clarksville his own special project. “I have a strong interest in seeing that station succeed,” he said.

Other researchers feel the same way. Dr. Amy Iezzoni’s cherry breeding and rootstock research is mainly centered there, where she has a large experimental planting; Dr. Greg Lang’s sweet cherry research on training systems, rootstocks, and growing cherries in covered structures is there. And Grieshop’s Solid-Set Canopy Delivery spraying research project, with it’s elaborate orchard canopy plumbing system, is there as well.

Self help

“Growers need to help themselves,” Schwallier said. “The only way to insure their future is to come to the table with funds of their own so they can direct how the funds are used.”

Michigan has a unique piece of law, PA 232 of 1967, that allows farmers to develop marketing orders to gather funds to support research, education, and promotion—(but not to engage in supply management). The Michigan Apple Committee, the Michigan Cherry Committee, and the Michigan Processing Apple Growers Association are all organized under this law. The programs are created for five years and must be renewed by grower referendum.

“The law has never been used this way before,” Korson said of the proposal to cross commodity lines and bring apples and cherries together under one commission.

A unique part of the plan is to create no new overhead costs, devoting 100 percent of funds raised to programs, with the existing organizations providing the administration. A new, unpaid board of growers would oversee the plans and expenditures. “The board would be reflective of the industries that are part of it,” Korson said. He expects about two-thirds of the funds to come from the apple industry and a third from the cherry industry. Other fruit industries in Michigan—peaches, plums, grapes—have not become players yet.

Korson thinks it’s now or never.

“We have an agricultural college dean who is very supportive and a governor and a legislature who are supportive of agriculture,” he said. “This is a unique time. The stars are aligned. If we don’t do this now, we won’t get another change for five or ten years.”

Korson commented on the composition of the crowd at Ridgefest. “There were so many young growers there,” he said. “The older growers, they can get by for the next few years, even if the research facilities continue to deteriorate and good people retire. But this is about legacy. This is for the future.”