Mitch LiesCapital Press
Blueberry grower Phil Olson is back in the public eye and once again opposing an assessment hike.Olson, who successfully sued the Oregon Blueberry Commission and the Oregon Department of Agriculture in 2000 for exceeding a cap on assessments, said he opposes a plan aired earlier this month to double the assessment for the Highbush Blueberry Council.Olson said the increase will cost him thousands of dollars at a time he is not in position to incur added expenses."If this increase is successful it's going to put the equivalent of a 5 or 6 percent tax on the gross sales of our product," Olson said. "That is just criminal."Members of the Highbush Blueberry Council announced earlier this month they plan to ask USDA to increase assessments from $12 a ton to $24 a ton.The new assessment could be in place in time for the 2010 crop.The national assessment is levied on top of any state blueberry assessment. In Oregon, the assessment is 0.4 cents a pound.Highbush Council members said they opted to seek the increase for fear the industry would not be able to move millions of pounds of blueberries expected to come on line in the next few years as new plantings mature.Members said production could potentially double in the next few years - from 600 million pounds last year to 1.2 billion by 2012. Worldwide acreage in blueberries has increased from 100,000 acres three years ago to 163,000 last year.Additional revenue generated by the assessment would be used for promotions.Olson said the rationale behind the Highbush Blueberry Council's proposal is off-base for several reasons.Rather than increasing promotions when prices are low and product inventory high, Olson said the council should scale back promotions."What they don't understand is commodities sell themselves when they're cheap," Olson said."If we didn't spend a dime on promotions, commodity sales would increase exponentially because this is a give-away at these prices," Olson said.Olson said he also believes the assessment should be based on a percentage of sales, not on volume."The whole thing is unfair," he said. "Every other berry does it on a percent of value, which takes into account the use (fresh or frozen)."Olson said he's talked to several growers who back his position."I don't think it is going to be any trouble getting a high percentage of berry growers behind me," he said.Growers will have a chance to respond to the proposed increase by submitting comments to the Federal Register, according to Bryan Ostlund, administrator of the Oregon Blueberry Commission.More information on how to respond will be available once the council formally proposes the increase, Ostlund said.Growers also will have a say in whether to continue the Highbush Blueberry Council in a national referendum in 2011.Olson said he is generally pleased with the work of the Highbush Blueberry Council."They've done a decent job with spreading the health message," he said. "I don't quibble with the use of the funds."But I think no tax is better than a bad tax," he said.
Mitch Lies writer is based in Salem. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.