Phil Korson

Phil Korson

Michigan growers of apples, cherries, peaches, and plums are voting this next two weeks on a plan to create the Michigan Tree Fruit Commission. Ballots were to be mailed by the Michigan Department of Agriculture, and they needed to be postmarked for return by February 28.

At a meeting last week of the Michigan Pomesters, growers showed great interest in raising money—and controlling it as it is spent.

As proposed, the plan would raise about $675,000 every year and would be allocated to various projects by a 10-member grower board.

Since the program is being created under a state law, the funds would be collected under state authority and be budgeted under a line item in the Department of Agriculture’s budget. The grower board members would be nominated by the fruit industry and appointed by the governor.

Phil Schwallier, a grower and Michigan State University extension fruit educator; Phil Korson, president of the Cherry Marketing Institute; Dawn Drake, manager of the Michigan Processing Apple Growers; and Fruit Ridge area grower Patrick Goodfellow spoke for the program and answered questions.

The money collected is not an endowment, as in the Washington State program, and is not controlled by Michigan State University, as in the Washington State program.

“We will always have the clout of having the dollars,” Korson said.

Funds will be spent every year in three categories: Support for infrastructure at the four fruit experiment stations that are part of Michigan State University; support for research projects; and, if needed, support of extension positions that the growers want but the university can not fund. Currently one critical one in west central Michigan has been open more than a year.

In recent years, cuts in federal and state support have resulted in lost positions and lack of money to plant trees, repair irrigation systems, or replace equipment at the stations, Schwallier said. Researchers have to pay $1,000 an acre each year in plot fees to do research at the stations, he said. “We want to get rid of these fees to MSU,” he said.

Korson explained that a memorandum of understanding has been developed that will, when the commission is approved, be signed with Michigan State University agreeing that university funding will be “held harmless”—not cut and replaced by grower funding.

The commission, and the money it controls, will be used to leverage dollars and gather other support. The plan is to approach the legislature with proposals seeking matching dollars and to approach equipment manufacturers, chemical suppliers, and others for in-kind donations to support the experiment stations.

Korson, Schwallier, and Drake all agree the time is ripe. The governor seems supportive of agriculture. The dean of the agriculture college is well-disposed toward the tree fruit industry. Six legislators come from farms. The state’s specialty crops growers have enjoyed visibility and benefit from Sen. Debbie Stabenow and her leadership is getting the new Farm Bill passed, with its many provisions for specialty crop growers.

This may not always be true in the future, Schwallier said, so it pays to have safeguards in place so growers can help themselves—and protect the funds they are willing to assess themselves to generate.