News & Features

Cherry Growers Seek to Streamline Research, Development Process

Growers vote to eliminate program funded through commodity checkoff money in favor of more self-direction from the cooperative

Montana’s cherry growers have voted to eliminate the Montana Cherry Research and Market Development Program, a move the growers say will save them money and simplify the research and development process.

The program received financial backing from checkoff funds, which are an assessment paid for a certain amount of commodities grown and sold.

For cherry growers, the system set up in 2005 determined that if a grower located within two miles of Flathead Lake sold more than 200 pounds of cherries, they had to return a half-cent per pound to the state Department of Agriculture to pay for research and market development work.

“For the Flathead Lake Cherry Growers, when we sent like 2 million pounds (to processing), that essentially was $10,000,” said Bruce Johnson, president of the Flathead Lake Cherry Growers cooperative. “Over the years, the funding from the checkoff committee, 80 percent came from the FLCG co-op. We funded the lion’s share.”

Growers who sold their fruit on the side of the road also put in extra money to account for those sales, Johnson said.

When the research and development committee formed in 2005, its main purpose was to set up a fruit-fly management system to help educate cherry growers. Eventually, though, the five-person committee overseeing the funds began allocating money to various other projects, Johnson said.

Many were worthwhile, he said, such as partially funding the Cherry Symposium held in Polson for the last two years. But in those cases, he said the fruit-fly problem shifted to the backburner.

“It just got to be a real problem, because the fruit-fly situation doesn’t go away,” Johnson said. “It’s like knapweed — it’s always going to be here. You can control it in your spot, but you’re not going to eliminate it.”

The Department of Agriculture held a public hearing on eliminating the program in September, and mailed a ballot referendum to more than 100 cherry growers in the state. The final vote was 52-17 in favor of elimination. Per state law, any remaining checkoff funds will revert to the state’s general fund.

“The statute that enables them to start a checkoff program also allows them to disband it,” Andy Fjeseth, spokesperson for the Ag Department, said.

Johnson, who was a member of the research and development committee, said the committee’s work is still necessary, but the co-op will address it directly instead of going through the Ag Department. Johnson said the co-op worked with “good people” within the department, and the change is not based on anything other than simplifying the process for local growers.

“We have figured out a way to fund it anyway, because even though this has stopped with the Department of Agriculture, we have another method of doing it,” Johnson said. “The co-op will just fund it directly so we know we can get it done. We just had to simplify it. And in that simplifying process, we don’t need the committee and we don’t need to work with the state … It was just too complicated.”