Politics & Government

California raspberry growers don't want to be left out of promotion ads

WASHINGTON — California's fresh raspberry growers want to make sure they're not dissed in ads promoting frozen berries.

Urged on by Washington state growers, the Agriculture Department has been considering for several years a proposed "promotion order" to assist the processed raspberry industry. California growers say it's a sweet idea, so long as the resulting ads play nice.

The Agriculture Department "should make clear that any promotion of processed raspberries should not denigrate its fresh counterpart," stated Michael Hoffman of the Watsonville, Calif.-based Driscoll's berry firm.

Hoffman is among several dozen growers, consumers and others who have weighed in on the proposed Processed Raspberry Promotion, Research and Information Order. It's been on the vine a long time.

Growers first formally asked for the processed raspberry program in April 2007. It would be similar to existing promotion orders serving the cotton, dairy, egg, mushroom and watermelon industries, among others. Typically, packers, growers and importers pay fees based on their size. The accumulated funds pay for advertising and research.

The proposed raspberry program would charge 1 cent per pound, raising an estimated $1.2 million for research and promotions expected to emphasize the health benefits of frozen raspberries.

"We won't do it at the expense of fresh raspberries," Henry Bierlink, executive director of the Washington Red Raspberry Commission, stressed Tuesday.

First, though, the promotion program must be approved both by the Agriculture Department and through an industry referendum. Growers had hoped the referendum would happen this fall, but Agriculture Department officials still haven't scheduled a vote.

"It's been going from desk to desk, or sitting at the bottom of a pile," Bierlink said. "It's time to get it off their desks."

At the same time, Bierlink acknowledged the Agriculture Department's Agricultural Marketing Service has been juggling other responsibilities as well, including implementation of a new farm bill. Separately, the agency is considering revised programs for crops including California kiwifruit as well as an entirely new program proposed by California's leafy green industry.

An Agricultural Marketing Service spokesman could not be reached to comment Tuesday.

California ranks second in the nation in fresh raspberry production, with annual production valued at about $250 million, but essentially all of the nation's raspberries destined for processing are grown in Washington and Oregon. The processed raspberry growers will be the only ones voting in the industry referendum, along with roughly 50 importers nationwide.

Even so, growers outside of Washington and Oregon — including some as far away as Chile — are keeping a close eye on the proposal.

Hoffman, for one, stressed that the research and promotion should steer clear of fresh raspberries altogether, and he asked the Agriculture Department "to ensure that promotions do not simply seek to convince existing consumers of fresh raspberries they should instead buy processed berries." Chile, which accounts for 80 percent of U.S. processed raspberry imports, added its own concerns about overseas ads and how the program will be run.