Proponents stress that research will aid orchard growers
By DAN WHEAT
WENATCHEE, Wash. -- Cherry and stone fruit growers in Washington have until Jan. 16 to vote and postmark ballots to decide whether to assess themselves $5 million for Washington State University research.
A similar measure failed in the fall of 2011 while a $27 million assessment on apples and pears passed. Industry leaders hope the cherry and stone fruit referendum passes this time.
They think more growers now realize that while cherries will be assessed $4 per ton versus $1 per ton on apples and pears that the cost per acre is actually less for cherries because of lower yield.
Promotional material notes the average Washington yield on apples from 2007 through 2011, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, was 22 tons per acre versus 5 tons per acre for cherries. At $1 per ton on apples that's $22 per acre on apples and, at $4 per ton on cherries, is $20 per acre on cherries.
Pears average 20 tons per acre and at $1 per ton are $20 per acre. Stone fruit -- peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums and all other single-pit fruit -- averages 15 tons per acre and at $1 per ton is $15 per acre.
The $4 per ton assessment on cherries was "a barrier" in the first referendum, said Jim McFerson, manager of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission in Wenatchee.
"I'm very hopeful (this time)," McFerson said. "I feel we've done our best to provide information.
"I understand that with the plight of poor returns this past year, cherry growers may not see the direct benefits. But those benefits accrue short- and long-term."
The assessment will be collected until the entire $5 million is reached or through eight years, whichever comes first.
The tree fruit measures create endowments, the interest earnings from which support personnel and equipment for six faculty positions, five positions tied to WSU research and extension centers and supplementing county extension, and support for research orchard operation.
Des Layne and Stefano Musacchi have been hired for two of the endowed chairs.
Layne, state extension horticulture program leader at Clemson University, becomes WSU tree fruit extension program leader on Feb. 1 at the WSU Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee.
Musacchi, assistant professor in the University of Bologna's Department of Fruit Tree and Woody Plant Sciences in Italy, will become a WSU chairman in tree fruit physiology and management in August.
Beside helping support Layne's position, the cherry and stone fruit referendum will pay for new cherry and stone fruit plantings at WSU research orchards in Wenatchee and Prosser.
Kelly Frost, fairs and commissions coordinator at the state Department of Agriculture, said 1,460 ballots were mailed to cherry growers and 135 to stone fruit growers on Dec. 26.
As of Jan. 2, 188 ballots had been received back and a simple majority of those voting prevails, she said. If passed, assessments would take effect March 18 for this year's crops.
B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers and Washington State Fruit Commission, said he was surprised the measure didn't pass the first time, but that the assessment was confusing.
"I hope cherry growers step up to this," he said. "If we don't it leaves a huge hole in the original intent of the endowments."