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Overhauled California Cherry Board will have broader membership, narrower focus

by Rand Green | November 17, 2011

The California Cherry Advisory Board, which was established in 1993 primarily to apply for federal Market Access Program funds and to promote California Bing and Rainier cherries in Japan, is undergoing a major transformation that involves expansion, in that it brings producers of other California cherry varieties into the organization, but also is a contraction, in that the board will be narrowing the focus of its activities.

The board's Lodi office has been closed and Jim Culbertson, its full-time manager, and other staff members, have been let go. Management of the association is now being handled by Ag Association Management Services in Sacramento.

In 1993, Bings and Rainiers, grown principally in the northern San Joaquin Valley, accounted for about 95 percent of California cherry production. Now, "because of the newer varieties" that have been planted in the northern districts and the extensive acreage of the newer varieties that have been planted in the southern San Joaquin Valley, Bing and Rainier make up "less than half of the state's volume," said Jeff Columbini, president of Lodi Farming in Lodi, CA, and chairman of the California Cherry Advisory Board.

Newer varieties such as Brooks, Tulare, Sequoia and a number of others now constitute a significant share of the state's cherry crop but were not represented under the board's original structure.

“So what has happened over time is we were no longer speaking with one voice or acting with one voice as an industry. This problem was a slow, gradual issue that developed over the course of 18 years," he said.

Domestic promotion of California cherries had, over time, become a major part of the board's activities, but those activities will now be discontinued. "The handlers in the state made it clear that they were more adept at promoting cherries in the markets that they were wanting to promote into and they were more adept at talking to their buyers," Mr. Columbini said.

"So a proponent group was organized that was made up of current cherry advisory board members and also other cherry growers that were not represented by the old marketing order," he continued. "We have developed a new proposed California Cherry Board that will be encompassing all varieties, and our primary purpose is moving away from promotion to more communication with the retail trade and also a greater emphasis on research, both pre-harvest and post-harvest research."

In addition to Bings and Rainiers, Van and Lambert varieties were included in the original cherry board's purview. However, "There were never very many Vans and Lamberts in California," he said.

"The new cherry board will continue to do export promotion" as well as new market development in export markets "and will continue to utilize" federal MAP funds, he said.

"Basically, the new board is going to be doing those things that the individual growers or packers would have difficulty doing on their own," he added.

"Because we aren't doing domestic promotion any more, and because we are including all varieties" so more growers and handlers will be sharing the expenses, "the per-box assessment, will be decreased," Mr. Columbini said.

"We will still be doing domestic communication with the trade," he emphasized. "We are just not going to be offering promotion incentives like we did in the past."

Because the scope of the marketing order's activities is being reduced, it was felt that a full-time manager and staff and a full-time stand-alone office "just for California cherries" were no longer needed.

"By teaming up with Chris Zanobini's group, Ag Association Management Services Inc., we have access to his large staff," which includes accountants, managerial staff, pest and disease experts, and crisis-communication experts.

"We will be better able to handle issues as they arise with qualified staff without having to employ all those staff members on a full-time basis," he said.

The California cherry season runs for about two months, "so the majority of the work occurs in a two-month season basically from the end of April to the end of June," he said.