OLD MISSION — Cherries might seem like a big deal in northwest Michigan, especially to growers who have weather, global competition and now pandemic restrictions to contend with.
But Isaiah Wunsch, who runs Wunsch Farm, knows they’re one of hundreds of agricultural commodities in the U.S. and not at the top of everyone’s agenda. That’s why he and other cherry growers were glad for the chance Thursday to tell Bill Northey, U.S. Department of Agriculture under secretary of agriculture for farm production and conservation, about what they’re dealing with and what kind of help they need.
A number of northern Michigan farms either struggled this summer to find the workforce to pick their cherries, couldn’t get their fruit to processors shut down or impacted by social distancing guidelines, or both, Wunsch said.
“We were able to get our crop harvested but we heard from a number of other growers who weren’t able to get their cherries into the processors while the quality was holding out,” he said.
Cherry growers should be part of the next round of pandemic-related assistance to farmers, Wunsch said.
Ben LaCross, Michigan Farm Bureau’s district director, echoed that message. It was one topic covered at Thursday’s roundtable with Northey, some state-level USDA and Michigan Farm Bureau leaders and U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, a Republican for Michigan’s First District.
LaCross said Bergman facilitated the conversation with Northey and others about how programs like the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program helped other commodity growers but excluded cherries because of how the programs were designed. That and another called the Market Facilitation Program could help cherry producers hurt by years of low prices.
Prices for cherries are bad in part because of what LaCross, a cherry grower in Leelanau County, and many others like him call unfair competition from Turkey.
It’s an issue that’s vexed tart cherry growers for some time — Wunsch and LaCross said they both grow sweets and tarts while Wunsch largely focuses on the former — and one discussed at the roundtable as well.
The trade imbalance and pandemic impacts combined for a one-two hit on growers, and now China’s curbing its cherry imports from the U.S. in retaliation to tariffs placed on products made there, Bergman said.
That’s on top of the country, long a hotspot for intellectual property theft, and others piggy-backing on U.S. cherry research and marketing strategies.
Wunsch said he and other growers pay a special assessment for that research and marketing.
“So it is difficult for cherry growers to fund this research and then to see it being used by our competitors,” he said, adding that federal marketing orders behind some dumping of fruit hurt, too.
Round-tables like Thursday’s should give Northey, a farmer and Iowa’s former secretary of agriculture, a better understanding of cherry-specific issues, Bergman said. He credited President Donald Trump and his administration for directing the trip to inform policies that could protect the cherry industry.
“The U.S. is a world trader, we need to have imports and exports,” Bergman said. “The question is, how do we structure it in an ever-changing world so that both countries will see it’s a good deal, sign on the dotted line and make sure that we in the U.S. protect our interests, our companies, our farmers and our growers?”
John Kran, Michigan Farm Bureau’s national legislative counsel, said he believes the round-table was a good chance for growers to share their stories and hear about future assistance that could be coming to them. It’s a regional issue, as the vast majority of tart cherries grown in the U.S. are grown in northwest Michigan.
Bergman visited Wunsch Farm about a week after U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, a Democrat, stopped by to discuss some of the same issues, as previously reported. Both are up for reelection in November.
Wunsch said he believes supporting agriculture is one of the last positions on which some bipartisan agreement can be found. He credited both Bergman and Peters for tackling issues impacting cherry farmers, as well as some other federal lawmakers who weren’t there Thursday but have done their part as well: Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Republican Rep. John Moolenaar of Michigan’s Fourth District.
“I think it’s valuable to note that both Congressman Bergman and Senator Peters have been active on these issues for the last three years,” Wunsch said. “I know that we’re getting into campaign season here, but we really appreciate, and I think the entire district appreciates, the active participation that we’ve seen from our members of Congress on this issue, not just during the election cycle but throughout their terms.”