Cherries Jubilee: Montana's sweetest crop
Posted on 07 March 2016
Remember when you ate your first cherry? As a kid I remember a family camping trip to cherry country. For miles and miles we cruised along a country road lined with stately trees. Stopping at a tiny roadside stand, we bought a bag of freshly-picked cherries.
Once at the campground, my mother gave my sisters and me the bag of cherries and told us to share. But the temptation was too great. Distracting my sisters, I took the sack of sun-soaked red treasures and hid behind a tree. One by one and two by two, my tongue deftly separated pit from flesh. After finishing most of the bag, I lay back against the tree, my mouth and fingers stained red, my stomach swollen. Ah ... the taste of summer.
Anyone who has pushed the envelope of cherry consumption knows the cost of gluttony. The stomach can take only so much goodness before it lets you know you should have shared with someone else. Every spring, Flathead Lake cherry growers eagerly await the opportunity to share that summer goodness. Despite the inherent pitfalls, people from all backgrounds and a variety of motivations choose cherries as the commercial crop of choice to make a Montana living in the Flathead Valley. Cool nights, mountain altitude and fresh water, create a micro-climate that's ideal for great-tasting cherries. Spring is the perfect time for a scenic drive around the lake to see cherry trees in bloom. Orchards, large and small, line each side of the road in between the snow-capped mountains and a white-capped Flathead Lake. For residents and visitors alike, acres and acres of blossoming cherry trees add to the charming spring ambiance that is so special to the valley.
Recently I visited one of those small orchards owned by longtime resident Max Stark, a retired Polson High School agriculture teacher who's turned his passion to growing cherries. Max reminisces about why he ended up on Flathead Lake. "This place gets in your blood," he said. It was back in 1949, when Max and his late wife, Charlotte, bought their first cherry orchard on Finley Point. They built their home right in the middle of that orchard and proceeded to raise 10 kids, which was not an easy chore, "In fact, if you take a paper and pencil to it, it can't be done," he said. But with a regular job, a garden, a milk cow and lots of helping hands, the family was able to work their orchard and 80 acres of farmland near Ronan. Besides the additional income and good eating, Stark said, "having a cherry orchard helps keep the taxes down."
Stark's orchard is mainly Lambert and Lapin cherry trees, the most common varieties grown in the Flathead Valley. Max also produces other fruit trees like plums, apples, apricots, and even walnuts. At 81, Max still tends to his orchard as best he can, mowing grass, raking rocks and pruning trees. Others along the lake are equally busy. Mary and Steve Bryan came to the Flathead a few years ago, looking for a place to eventually retire as well as a place to start a second, full-time career. And, like other commercial and hobby growers, the Bryans were also looking for tax advantages and income potential. Perhaps it was fate that the cherry trees were in bloom the first time they saw their orchard. Ultimately, Mary and Steve chose the Flathead Valley for the clean air and healthy living.
Like Max, Steve and Mary didn't go into the cherry business without plenty of homework and forethought. The Bryans took many seminars, classes and orchard tours in order to get up to speed on the cherry business. In doing their research, the Bryans found that dwarf trees (a shorter version of the same Lambert, Lapin and Rainier tree stock grown locally) offer unique options for some Flathead growers. An advantage to the dwarf cherry trees is that they offer more plantings per acre and harvesting is easier for pickers. Standard trees take about seven years to produce, while dwarf trees - the "vertically challenged," as Mary calls them - will produce fruit in three years. This spring, the Bryans will be planting over 15,000 trees - the largest dwarf cherry block in the state - making their Yellow Bay Orchard the second largest acreage planted in the Flathead Valley.
Weather is the Achilles heel of any agricultural venture and in 1989 there was genuine concern about the welfare of the local cherry crop. After a balmy thaw toward the end of winter, a brutal arctic blast drove temperatures to minus 40 degrees, freezing the life out of well-established trees. Later that summer, the devastation was evident: acre after acre of cherry tree skeletons lined the lake like an endless cemetery of cherry trees. Losses were estimated at 2,000 acres of fruit-bearing trees. The Bryans weren't here for the 1989 catastrophe. But they know of the devastation the freeze had on their neighbors and the Flathead Cherry Growers Association, where Steve is now a board member. "Having trees and being attached to them, it's easy to see how the weather chilled people's attitudes," said Mary.
But there seems to be a thaw occurring. Some growers did not dwell on defeat and despite the damage replanted within a few years. Their strategy has finally paid off. Trees planted in 1991 and 1992 are just now starting to produce. "Since the freeze, this will be the first year that the association might get somewhere close to a full harvest," said Steve Bryan. Weather is not the only challenge for Flathead Valley cherry growers. There are many other diseases and pests to contend with. "Deer," said Stark, is "public enemy number one. They eat the leaves, the bark, the buds." There are several methods orchardists use to keep deer away from their orchards and, says Stark, "You'd be amazed at how many people know all the remedies." One solution involves hanging human hair from the fence, either in cheesecloth bags or sacks. The human scent supposedly scares the deer away.
Another method actually encourages deer to an electric fence with peanut butter, the idea being that, once zapped, they'll never come back again. The problem with that approach is that squirrels are reincarnated trapeze artists and will stop at nothing - including electricity - to get a free meal. The bottom line is that an orchard is only as good as its fence. Harvest time culminates every cherry grower's calendar year. "I can hardly wait for harvest," says Mary Bryan. Part of the excitement is reuniting with the migrant help. Many of these highly-skilled workers come from Mexico and many of the same families return year after year. "There's a real camaraderie and family feeling," she says.
Functioning as a team, these migrant workers work along side locals, some from local high schools, from dawn until dusk. "It's neat," Mary Bryan adds. "Early in the morning you hear the people arrive, the ladders banging, then you hear the first cherries going into a bucket. You can hear a ping ... there's a romance to it, in a way." Depending on the weather, the actual picking is over at one or two o'clock in the afternoon. Dinner comes very late; breakfast comes very early. There are some tense moments, of course, like racing against the threat of rain and getting the crop harvested within a two-week window. Late in maturing, Flathead cherries usually go to the regional market at a time when competition from other cherry producing areas has slowed. But last year, Washington cherries were late coming to market, leaving brokers scrambling for buyers. On top of that, antiquated processing equipment left 250,000 pounds of harvested fruit baking outside all day until it was able to be cooled. That may change this year. For one trial year, the Flathead cherry growers association has entered into an agreement with the Monson Fruit Company of central Washington to transport, sort, pack, and sell their cherries.
This company will also bring in a state-of-the-art cooler to the packing plant that will cool and stabilize up to 1,200 pounds of cherries quickly. The cherries will then be marketed out of Despite the ups and downs of the cherry business, growers find cherries a viable crop with unparalleled lifestyle benefits along the pristine waters of Flathead Lake. "Our years here have been joyful," said Mary.
Those of us who appreciate the fruits of their labor, agree with her.