WASHINGTON — Get ready for the dancing raspberries, or something like them.
Following years of cultivation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Tuesday gave the formal go-ahead for a new advertising program to promote consumption of processed raspberries. It’s trickier than it sounds: A similar program promoting Christmas trees caused a political dustup last fall.
Emulating similar programs that serve the California raisin industry, beef and dairy producers, and others, major processed-raspberry producers and importers will pay mandatory fees, and the money raised will pay for ads and research.
“I hope we will be following a pattern that other ag groups have done, very successfully,” Henry Bierlink, the executive director of the Washington Red Raspberry Commission, said Tuesday, adding that “we’ll have to be thinking of our own little twist.”
The industry fees of 1 cent per pound will provide an estimated $1.2 million annually, far less than the marketing programs that have funded classic ad motifs such as the Dancing Raisins and “Got Milk?”
Raspberry producers appear largely united behind the idea: Eighty-eight percent of those who voted in an industry referendum last year supported the program as a way to boost sales and cope with a surge of imports. Imports now account for about 40 percent of the U.S. market for processed raspberries, such as those that are frozen or dehydrated.
Still, Bierlink noted that the new program came together in “fits and starts” over the past five years, as industry leaders faced what he called “unforeseen hurdles” as well as “our own learning curve.” Legal and political complications, moreover, can ensue whenever mandatory fees are imposed.
The last time the Agriculture Department made public plans for an industry-funded ad program – involving Christmas trees – some conservatives mocked the idea as an Obama administration “Christmas tree tax.” Although it was the industry itself that had been seeking the self-help program, the Agriculture Department quickly retreated last November, at least for a while.
Potential competitors to the processed-raspberry industry also want to make sure that the new ads don’t turn sour.
“USDA should make clear that any promotion of processed raspberries should not denigrate its fresh counterpart,” Michael Hollister, the vice president of Watsonville, Calif.-based Driscoll Strawberry Associates, advised during a written public-comment period, further seeking assurances that “promotions do not simply seek to convince existing consumers of fresh raspberries they should instead buy processed berries.”
Even the First Amendment can come into play.
Tree fruit growers in California’s San Joaquin Valley fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in their challenge to a promotion program that they called a violation of their constitutional right to stay silent. The dissident growers characterized the mandatory advertising assessments as compelled speech; they lost narrowly. Related constitutional challenges continued in state and federal courts, leading to a follow-up 2005 decision in which the Supreme Court upheld a beef promotion program.
“The government may not compel individuals to convey messages with which they disagree,” Justice Antonin Scalia acknowledged in the beef case, but he added that paying assessments for something considered government speech “is not nearly as intrusive as being forced to utter what is not in one’s mind.”
A 13-member National Processed Raspberry Council will be appointed to oversee the new program.
“The reason to do the promotions is to generate more interest in consumption,” Erin Thoeny, a raspberry producer in Woodland, Wash., said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “If we don’t improve prices at the domestic level, there will be no domestic berries.”
The Washington Red Raspberry Commission and the Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission already have modest state promotion programs, which will continue. Oregon and Washington state farmers produce most of the nation’s processed raspberries, while California producers primarily serve the fresh market. Together, the three states account for 80 percent of the nation’s raspberry acreage.
The U.S. Agriculture Department recognizes some 18 research and promotion programs that cover everything from blueberries and dairy products to popcorn, pork and soybeans, as well as 20-plus marketing orders that likewise can assess industry fees on behalf of fruits and vegetables.
Still more might be on the way, eventually. The latest five-year farm bill approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee asks for an Agriculture Department assessment of whether an “organic research and promotion” program might be feasible.