Under Threat: Michigan’s Cherry Capital of The World
September 26, 2019
In an era of epic international trade disputes that attract widespread media attention – and spark fears of a worldwide recession – there is another trade story playing out in Michigan that doesn’t fit neatly into the standard narrative but holds potentially epic consequences for one of the state’s signature industries.
Michigan cherry farmers are struggling for survival against cheap Turkish imports. And they’re doing it virtually on their own, outside the trade war superstructure of global superpowers (like the U.S., EU and China) and international businesses.
Four Michigan-based fruit growing operations, along with one from Utah, are asking U.S. trade authorities for sanctions against dried tart cherries from Turkey. The growers claim Turkey is capturing market share in the U.S. by charging unfair prices with government support.
“I cannot stress enough that (the Turkish importers) are causing real world harm,” said Nels Veliquette, a Traverse City-area cherry farmer. Traverse City is the self-described “Cherry Capital of the World,” and Michigan produces the lion’s share of the nation’s tart cherries.
But as cut-rate Turkish imports nearly tripled over the last three years, Michigan farmers have seen their market share erode dramatically, leading to the closure of orchards and layoffs among processors.
Veliquette describes it as a potentially existential threat to a cultural icon, the family orchard and farm that defines much of the west and northern Michigan landscape.
One that the coalition of domestic competitors is battling largely without the assistance of the U.S. government. Impatient with U.S. regulators, even within a notoriously tough on trade Trump administration, the growers are pursuing their case with the aid of a high-priced Washington D.C. legal firm.
Veliquette said they’ve already shelled out $80,000 out-of-pocket, and expect attorney fees to top $1.5 million eventually.
“It’s important for the government to recognize that our industry is a critical part of the culture and the economy…and to the people of Michigan,” he said.
Some of the farmers in the coalition trace their orchard heritage back more than a century. Elizabeth Drake, a veteran trade attorney leading the legal team, said the dried cherry initiative is a “remarkable” undertaking, one that stands in stark contrast to higher profile trade battles pursued by the government on behalf of steel and aluminum industries, or the tit-for-tat agricultural and manufacturing tariffs imposed by China and the U.S.
Drake said she is cautiously optimistic the Commerce Department and International Trade Commission will issue favorable rulings.
Veliquette said he hopes their efforts will help save an industry and a culture, one that created a market for dried cherries that is now under assault from predatory trade practices.
And one that will get the attention of government regulators and other potential trade predators.
“There’s been this attitude that we can do this (compete unfairly with small and mid-sized domestic producers) and no one will stop us,” he said.
“Here, the growers stood up for themselves.”