Georgia is known for its peaches, Washington its apples. Here in Northwest Montana we have the huckleberry. August traditionally marks the height of the season when, to several locals, the little berries are big business.
Inside a Kalispell shop, an eight-sided container holds the purple preserves. Beneath the dark green cap, an artist’s rendering of a huckleberry plant and the words “Wild Huckleberry Jam” are printed in romantic script across the label. The glass dwelling is a home far removed from the rugged mountain trails where the succulent violet berries once grew.
Area merchants have stumbled upon a profitable business model: If it has huckleberries in it, it sells. They are putting the illustrious little berry in just about everything, including traditional jams, jellies, syrups, chocolates, ice cream, pies, pancakes and the not-so-conventional candles, lotions, teas, barbeque sauces, beers and lip balms.
Edward Springman, owner of Huckleberry Haven in Kalispell, runs a business specializing in the manufacturing and wholesaling of huckleberry products to both retailers and consumers.
“To me huckleberries are a big thing,” Springman said. “But then again, huckleberries are my life.” Springman attributes the success of the huckleberry businesses in Northwest Montana to people associating the berry with their experiences here. It’s part of the culture. Just as people who visit Boston eat clam chowder, tourists in Montana eat huckleberries, he said.
The Huckleberry Patch, located in Hungry Horse, also specializes in manufacturing and wholesaling huckleberries. Gift shop cashier Shauna Clevidence said huckleberry demand is constant.
“They are in high demand,” Clevidence said. “Nobody really knows what they are but they know they want them.”
Just up the road at Willow’s HuckleberryLand, Josiah Willows works at his family-owned stand. He noted demand for huckleberry products is particularly high with visitors, estimating 90 percent of their business is tourist-supported. Willows agreed that the uniqueness of the huckleberry sparks the customers’ curiosity.
“They usually come in to try a huckleberry, they get a milkshake and end up buying some jam,” Willows said. “That is pretty much how it goes.”
Huckleberry demand keeps prices up and competition fierce. Huckleberries are big business in Montana. A report released last year by the USDA said Montana’s wild huckleberry industry exceeds more than $1 million annually, processing, on average, nearly 25 tons of berries.
The 2007 state Legislature passed a law that cracks down on products that purport to contain solely Montana huckleberries, but in fact contain imported blueberries from Canada. The bill imposes misdemeanor penalties on false-labelers and requires commercial huckleberry pickers to register in confidential documents to the Department of Agriculture the area where they pick wild huckleberries.
Retailers agree there are a multitude of reasons why the huckleberry is so profitable. The huckleberry has yet to be tamed and can only be harvested in the wild. Researchers at Montana State University and the University of Idaho are still trying to domesticate the berry for commercial growth. Because of this, the huckleberry industry must outsource berry picking to professional pickers, creating, according to one business, a “true open market” for the berry.
Some argue inelastic demand for huckleberries mirrors the demand for gasoline; people will pay any price to get their hucks. “There is some level of price gouging,” said Clevidence. “It comes about because, as far as the berries go, they are hard to find.” Huckleberry businesses also argue the high price comes from in-house processing of the berry that customers don’t find at large scale manufacturers.
Businesses love to rave about their products and the renowned huckleberry. Yet, when it comes to age old family recipes, the location of choice berry patches, how much they are paying and just how much they produce, those businesses are far more tight-lipped.
The competitive world of huckleberry products, however, may not be as cutthroat as some might believe. Merchants agree they each have their own little niche product or specialty that draws in customers.
“It is all about the huckleberries,” Clevidence said. “We try so we aren’t competing for the same exact thing.”
Retailers agree a strong faith in the products they produce and finding their own sales niche has led to friendly competition without monopolization of the huckleberry industry.
“We help each other out,” Clevidence said. “This is a very friendly industry; it is like we are a big team.”
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