Voters bury Cherry Checkoff program

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Samples of cherries are displayed at the Zavala cherry stand in Bigfork. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake file)

The results of the Cherry Checkoff referendum are in and Montana cherry growers voted overwhelmingly to dismantle the 15-year-old program.

A press release Thursday from the Montana Department of Agriculture indicated the agency intended to honor the results of the referendum and would take immediate moves to repeal all rules and administrative policies associated with the program. Once the rules are repealed, the $11,563 that is currently in the Cherry Checkoff fund would revert to the state’s general fund, said Department of Agriculture Communications Officer Andy Fjeseth.

“It doesn’t mean we won’t work on cherry projects anymore. Cherries are still part of Montana agriculture and part of our mission,” Fjeseth said. “Just the Checkoff program is done.”

The demise of the program will also lead to the disbanding of the Cherry Advisory Committee, Fjeseth said. The Cherry Advisory Committee was a group of cherry growers who provided input to the Department of Agriculture about how the funds would be best spent to help growers.

The Cherry Checkoff was a program started in 2002 intended to help Montana cherry growers pool resources and respond to the looming threats of cherry fruit fly infestations. Pooling resources allowed growers to conduct research on the best methods to control the pest, and the methods were then applied to other problems as well.

The idea was to have a way to conduct research specific to small growers here rather than rely on data funded by bigger growers from outside the state. The funds were also used to stage annual symposiums for growers to learn about various growing techniques.

In lieu of the local research and educational resources, Montana growers will likely rely again on research that focuses on out-of-state orchards that certainly have similarities but are often many times larger in scale and reside in different climates.

Local growers will also retain control of the half percent of proceeds they were previously mandated to chip in to the program, which was likely the main reason for its unpopularity.

The referendum was conducted by mail, and some growers previously expressed doubt that it was the right time of year to try and reach all growers by mail. The Department of Agriculture said they received a total of 69 ballots, and previously said they sent out around 100, for a voter participation rate of nearly 70 percent. The final vote was 52-17 in favor of elimination.

Reporter Peregrine Frissell can be reached at (406) 758-4438 or pfrissell@dailyinterlake.com.

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