MICHIGAN CHERRY growers cannot tell a lie. The huge supply of Michigan sour cherries -- the biggest crop in 18 years -- will probably not result in any cost benefit to the consumer.
Still, Michigan cherry growers appeal to the public to Buy More Cherries -- and brought this appeal to Capitol Hill last week where they threw an ice cream social for congressmen and their staffs.
MACMA (Michigan Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Association) came to town with 600 pounds of surplus sweet and sour cherries, a bundle of recipes (printed on cherry-red cards) and sang the praises of the federal marketing orders which keep cherry production stable.
The marketing order concerning cherries allows the growers to withhold 20 percent of their crop from the market. The government reimburses the farmers for these cherries, and the farmers get higher prices for the cherries that do come to market. But the Office of Management and Budget vetoed this year's support two weeks into harvest -- particularly bad timing, said Harry Foster, of the Michigan Farm Bureau.
Subsequently, the entire crop is going to market -- all 250 million pounds of sour cherries; all 70 million pounds of sweet, dark cherries. Michigan cherry growers produce 85 percent of the nation's fruit, and this year's crop is selling for 9 or 10 cents a pound, compared with last year's 45 cents. Virtually all of these cherries, said Foster, will be used in processing such things as canned cherries, pie filling and cheesecake topping.
So they came to Washington, "to get rid of some cherries and to publicize the plight of the cherry farmer," said Bill Pichurski, a Michigan lobbyist. They got rid of some of the cherries by topping 600 pounds of vanilla ice cream with sweet cherries, sour cherries, cherries in rum sauce and cherry pie filling. In addition, order blanks were distributed to allow attendees to order 10 pounds of individually quick frozen cherries (sweet or sour) for 62 cents a pound.
Washington is one stop on the public relations circuit. Here MACMA representatives approached large federal agencies -- the departments of Agriculture and Army, for example -- asking them to use cherries in their massive feeding programs in hopes of increasing the demand, helping the growers on small farms remain solvent.
"We don't want to see all these small family farmers going out of business," said Pichurski. Cherry growers unprotected by marketing orders feel the effects of the "feast and famine" growing situation. Middlemen, on the other hand, can buy cheap cherries in a "feast" year, process them so the fruit can be stored (canning and freezing) and then hold on to them until a "famine" year which results in 45-cents-per-pound prices. Pichurski said the growers do not have this flexibility -- they need to sell all of their fresh product as soon as it is picked -- and "are taking it on the nose."
Consumers, Foster pointed out, will see little effect of the large crop in the price of processed cherries. Some processors -- notably makers of a quality cherry topped cheesecake -- even raised prices during the last big crop. In general, said Foster, small ripples occur in consumer prices when dramatic peaks and valleys affect the farmer.