Tart Cherry Trees Are Being Undercut. Some Suspect Lies Are Being Told

Feb 17, 2020
Originally published on February 17, 2020 7:28 pm
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On this Presidents Day holiday, we bring you a story involving cherry trees. We know now that young George Washington didn't really chop down a cherry tree. It's a myth fabricated by the first president's biographers. Well, it appears some people are stretching the truth in the world of global cherry commerce. NPR's Scott Horsley has this tart tale of international intrigue and the cherry juice detective.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Tart cherries are the kind of go in cherry pie, and if you made a pie chart of America's tart cherry crop, you'd see a very big slice. More than 70% is grown in Michigan, home state of U.S. Senator Gary Peters.

GARY PETERS: In fact, when you fly into Traverse City, you fly into Cherry Capital Airport, something that local residents take great pride in.

HORSLEY: Mike Van Agtmael has about 170 acres of cherry trees in Hart, Mich., on a farm that's been in his family almost a hundred years. Lately, though, the tart cherry business has been the pits. Along with all the usual farm headaches like weather and insects, Van Agtmael has to contend with cheap, foreign competition, especially from Turkey.

MIKE VAN AGTMAEL: Tart cherries have been just extremely hard. I mean, there isn't a grower out there that's not feeling the effects.

HORSLEY: Growers thought they might get a break in 2018 when, for the first time, a tariff was applied to imported cherry juice from Turkey. Sure enough, imports of Turkish cherry juice fell nearly 40%. But Senator Peters says that was quickly replaced by a flood of juice from other countries.

PETERS: We're kind of looking at a little bit of a game of whack-a-mole here.

HORSLEY: What really raised eyebrows was the large amount of tart cherry juice that suddenly began showing up tariff-free from Brazil.

ELIZABETH DRAKE: There is no discernable tart cherry industry in Brazil.

HORSLEY: Trade lawyer Elizabeth Drake scoured the Internet in both English and Portuguese but found no listing for Brazilian cherry farms. She combed through export records and shipping documents. Ultimately, she was left with a simple suspicion.

DRAKE: The imports that were being called Brazilian actually might still be Turkish and just being misclassified at the border.

HORSLEY: I guess you're sort of a cherry juice detective.

DRAKE: That is a lot of what we do. We put together the pieces of the puzzle.

HORSLEY: Michigan cherry growers and Senator Peters have asked customs agents to investigate. A customs spokesperson wouldn't comment on this particular case but said, we take all allegations of tariff evasion seriously. This juice fight is just the latest skirmish in a long-running battle between Michigan growers and Turkey over all sorts of tart cherry products. Drake says it's come at a cost. Michigan's cherry production fell last year by 21%.

DRAKE: Last time I went to Michigan, I saw that there were trees being ripped out from the orchard. So it's a really dire situation that they're faced with.

HORSLEY: Julie Gordon, who heads the Cherry Marketing Institute, notes those trees are long-term investments that take years to bear fruit. She says growers can't just easily switch crops when competition gets tough.

JULIE GORDON: All our cherry growers are asking for is a level playing field, and if we can get a level playing field, we hope to revive our industry.

HORSLEY: Gordon was in Washington last week, pleading her case with U.S. officials. Senator Peters acknowledges cherry farmers don't have the clout of some other industries seeking trade protection.

PETERS: You know, if you're the steel industry, you can hire an army of lawyers. You can hire economists. You can put together a trade case. But if you're cherry growers in northern Michigan that are struggling to stay in business, to have to put that together is very difficult.

HORSLEY: Still, Peters says he's raised the plight of the cherry farmers directly with President Trump, who could take special interest this election year in farmers from a swing state like Michigan.

PETERS: I hope - whatever it takes is what I say. Whatever it takes.

HORSLEY: Cherry grower Mike Van Agtmael is hoping for some relief. Otherwise, this third-generation farmer could be the last.

VAN AGTMAEL: I don't know what's going to happen to all the family farms, but something's got to change pretty quick because we just cannot survive.

HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.