Christmas tree controversy stalls program's approval
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
After several months of delay, the USDA has approved a national checkoff program for promoting processed red raspberries.
Farmers and importers will pay up to 1 cent per pound of the crop, which is expected to raise $1.2 million for research and promotions.
The program aims to increase demand for processed raspberries by funding national marketing efforts beyond what state commissions are currently doing.
The Washington Red Raspberry Commission, which asked USDA to implement the program, expected the checkoff to be established last November.
However, the program was stalled after a controversy erupted over a similar fundraising mechanism for Christmas trees, which pundits and bloggers characterized as a tax on the holiday staple.
"I think some of that got settled down and they're moving forward," said Henry Bierlink, executive director of the commission.
The USDA's decision shows the agency is still committed to research and promotion programs, though officials are probably holding their breath and hoping the raspberry program won't trigger a reaction similar to the Christmas tree checkoff, he said.
"I don't think they're eager to trumpet this for a while," Bierlink said.
The raspberry industry must now form a board to oversee the checkoff program, he said. Assessments on imports are expected to begin later this year, but the new organization will not be able to start collecting assessments on domestic production until next year's crop.
The raspberry checkoff is expected to affect about 200 growers, mostly in Oregon and Washington, as well as 50 importers of the fruit. Companies that produce or import less than 20,000 pounds of the crop a year won't be subject to the assessment.
In a referendum last year, 88 percent of affected farmers and importers voted to approve the checkoff.
The USDA expects state raspberries commissions in Oregon and Washington to concentrate on funding production research, while "market development functions" will shift to the organization that administers the checkoff.
Bierlink said he expects the money will be used to highlight the nutritional and health benefits of the crop.
The Washington Red Raspberry Commission will need to discuss whether to scale back or refocus its role as an organization now that the national program has been established, he said.
The commission's assessment rate of a half cent per pound remains in place, though the organization will discuss whether to reduce the rate or shift more funds into research, Bierlink said.
Each year, the commission collects about $300,000 to $350,000, which is split evenly among promotions, production research and government relations, he said.
The Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission probably won't be as affected by the national checkoff, since much of its funding is derived from assessments on blackberries, Bierlink said.