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Michigan tart cherry producers were dealt a pit in the stomach Tuesday when the federal government reversed its decision to implement preliminary tariffs placed on imports of dried tart cherries from Turkey.

Northern Michigan produces 75% of the U.S.'s tart cherries, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to the region each summer. But the industry "is not materially injured or threatened with material injury by reason of imports of dried tart cherries from Turkey," the International Trade Commission determined, despite the U.S. Commerce Department previously determining the foreign produce is subsidized and sold at less than fair value.

"It represents a body blow to an industry that was already struggling in the commodities cycle," said Nels Valiquette, a tart cherry grower and processor in Williamsburg who with four other processors petitioned the government in April to implement tariffs up to 648% on subsidized imports from Turkey that they said threatened the future of the industry. The processors spent nearly $1.7 million to make their argument.

All five commissioners voted down the tariffs, though an explanation will not be published until Feb. 18. After the report is released, the cherry processors could appeal the decision to the commission.

The processors had received bipartisan support in their efforts to fight for their industry. Lawmakers on Tuesday slammed the decision, with Sen. Gary Peters, saying the commission is "disregarding the overwhelming evidence and is letting trade abusers off the hook."

“This decision is unacceptable and ignores the facts: Turkish exporters have decimated Michigan’s cherry industry," said the Bloomfield Township Democrat, who testified before the commission on behalf of the processors in December. "I am outraged that the ITC has chosen to ignore its own previous determinations and side with Turkish exporters over Michigan cherry growers."

Added Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, in a statement: “Michigan cherry growers have enough challenges without having to deal with foreign competitors who cheat and violate our trade laws."

Preliminary decisions by the commission's staff had yielded positive results for the processors. In September, the commission implemented a nearly 205% duty on imported dried tart cherries to offset Turkish government subsidies. It also levied significant tariffs on their exporters to slow the flow of cheap cherries.

"We started to see some customers coming back from buying imported products and inquiring about domestic products," Valiquette said. "I don't see why they would continue. Quite a bit of the air has been left out of the balloon."

The money collected from the preliminary duties now will be returned because of the commission's decision, and the antidumping and countervailing tariffs will be removed.

“I’m extremely disappointed that after bipartisan testimony and hearing directly from northern Michigan cherry growers, the ITC reversed its initial decision to institute tariffs against Turkish imports, siding against American farmers," Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, said in a statement. "This is a terrible decision that puts Michigan growers at an extreme disadvantage."

But the cherry industry is keeping up the fight, Valiquette said, with plans to file a complaint with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Since the United States in 2018 implemented a half-center per liter tariff on Turkish tart cherry juice, Turkey has begun to ship its produce to Brazil to be imported here and avoid the tax, Valiquette said.

"The mood around here is pretty somber," he said. "We were hoping to celebrate a bit this week, but it looks like we have to put our nose to the grindstone."

bnoble@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble

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