Utah farmers declare a tart cherry war as Turkey floods market with cheap fruit

Utah farmers have declared a tart cherry war on Turkey, alleging producers in the Eastern European country are intentionally dumping cheap fruit on the U.S. market and crippling the multimillion-dollar industry America helped create.

The Utah-based Payson Fruit Growers cooperative, along with four dried-cherry processors from Michigan, filed a countervailing and anti-dumping petition with the U.S. Department of Commerce and International Trade Commission.

The petition, filed earlier this week by the Dried Tart Cherry Trade Committee, asserts that Turkey is unfairly flooding the U.S. market with inexpensive dried tart cherries, which is sinking the price of domestic fruit.

Farmers have asked trade officials to increase the tariff on Turkey’s imported products by nearly 630 percent. An initial determination is expected to take about 45 days.

Wholesale prices for dried tart cherries in the U.S. are $4.50 to $5 a pound, while Turkey imports its dried tart cherries for 89 cents a pound — well below the cost of production, said Matt Hargreaves, vice president of communications for the Utah Farm Bureau.

Even at that low price, tart cherry growers in Turkey are able to make a profit, Hargreaves explained, because they receive subsidies from the European Union for processing and the Turkish government for fuel, fertilizers and other costs.

Until recently, Turkey had an additional advantage because it received duty-free trade, which the U.S. uses to help developing nations. However, in March, that designation was removed.

All that has created an unfair edge that farmers want remedied, said Hargreaves. “It’s not that our farmers are afraid to compete with foreign markets,” he said, “but we need to make it a level playing field, and it hasn’t been that way.”

The influx of cheap fruit has forced U.S. producers to store at least two seasons of harvest, and some farmers in Michigan have begun ripping out cherry trees. Hargreaves hasn’t heard of any Utah cherry farmers removing trees — at least not yet.

The amount of dried cherries imported from Turkey has grown exponentially over the past three years, doubling from nearly 414,000 pounds in 2016 to 826,000 pounds in 2017. Last year, imports nearly doubled again with 1.5 million pounds of dried cherry products brought into the U.S.

The increase is too large to simply attribute to more fertile soil or labor costs, said Miles Hansen with the World Trade Center of Utah. “Natural factors would not lead to that type of growth.”

Hansen said subsidizing fruit production and selling it for cheap is a strategy Turkey is using “to grow their market share and put the U.S. cherry farmers out of business.”

Michigan is the U.S. capital for tart cherries, producing more than 200 million pounds annually. Utah ranks a distant second, averaging of about 30 million pounds of tart, or sour, cherries a year.

Most of the Utah tart cherries are grown along the Utah County foothills in and around Payson and Santaquin, where the elevation, climate and soil combine to help the fruit trees thrive.

Eight family farms produce most of Utah’s tart cherries; together, they make up the Payson Fruit Growers cooperative.

Years ago, most of Utah’s tart cherries turned up as pie filling. But, in the 1990s, the cooperative perfected the process for drying and packaging cherries for use in granola, trail mixes and other snacks. A small amount still goes for canning or is turned into cherry juice or juice concentrate.

In recent years, the health industry has promoted dried cherries as a super food, and sales have soared. Studies have shown that dried tart cherries are high in antioxidants — two or three times higher than fresh sweet cherries. They also are one of the few fruits with natural melatonin, which researchers say may help regulate sleep and lessen inflammation.

The foreign threats to Utah’s tart cherry crop come at a time when many farmers are trying to ward off urban sprawl. The state’s strong birthrate and booming economy have made it one of the fastest-growing areas in the country, and there is heightened pressure to turn farmland into subdivisions.

If the tart cherry industry stops being productive, “developing the ground becomes the highest and best use,” Hansen said. “When you take away agricultural land, it’s gone forever, and that undermines a critical part of Utah’s economy."