The Flathead Lake cherry harvest is no small operation.
From the time this coveted fruit appears on the vine until someone in Canada picks up a box at a local grocery store, hours of labor will be expended and millions of dollars spent.
Depending on the year, pickers begin plucking the ripe crop of Sweetheart, Lapin and Lambert cherries from more than 100 orchards dotting the east side of Flathead Lake toward the end of July.
“I know that in a typical year, just the payroll alone is probably a million dollars,” Dale Nelson, president of the Flathead Cherry Growers Cooperative, said. “And that’s just picking.” He estimated that it takes about 1,000 employees to pull off the harvest each year, which doesn’t include people like the groundskeepers and tractor drivers. And pickers are paid by the 30-pound lug.
Pickers show up from all over the country, with 20 to 30 working on a small orchard at a time, grower Mike Bonner said. The workers also lift boxes and load cherries into giant bins that hold 300 pounds. A crop of 3 million pounds of cherries would require 10,000 bins.
Nelson said the fruit is then hauled out of the orchard by a forklift or tractor and taken to the cherry warehouse at Finley Point, near the south end of Flathead Lake. There, they are put into a hydrocooler with water temperature set at 32 degrees. The cherries are also blasted with ice-cold water, which cools them down within seconds, Nelson said. A refrigerated truck delivers the fruit to Selah, Wash., to be sorted and packaged, which is also a cold-water process.
“That’s the name of the game for having super fresh fruit, keeping it cold,” Nelson said. “It’s a real high-tech handling of fruit.”
The cherries are packaged, marketed and distributed by Monson Fruit Co. in Selah and Domex Superfresh Growers in nearby Yakima, Wash.
Loren Queen, marketing and communications manager for Domex, said they plan well in advance for the needs of transportation, bins and packaging.
“We sell Flathead Lake cherries in packages marked ‘Montana Cherries’ so that consumers know they are getting something extra-special,” he said, and added that such packaging must be designed and printed at least 2 months prior to harvest.
Since the cherries are distributed across the United States and Canada, Queen said, no fewer than 275 people work on packaging, marketing and distribution. This process depends on how the harvest goes, but generally takes three weeks with employees working two to three shifts per day, he said.
With fewer workers, smaller orchards have to bear the brunt of picking, packaging and delivery themselves. But that doesn’t mean consumers receive a lesser quality fruit.
“We are kind of a different entity because we do so much to add value to the product,” said Heidi Johnson with the Orchard at Flathead Lake near Bigfork.
She said they let their cherries hang on the tree as long as they can to ensure consumers get that sweet, fully ripened taste. And instead of harmful chemicals, they use an organic spray made from fermented bacteria.
The orchard itself is certified organic and has 500 trees. This year Johnson said they would probably harvest about 15,000 pounds of cherries. Last Tuesday, she was waiting on her 11 pickers to arrive. In addition to hiring employees at 20-cents a pound, she counts on members of her family to help with the sorting and delivery of the 20-pound boxes.
The Flathead cherry crop is usually the latest to come on, which according to Nelson is a good thing, since the fruit will have come and gone in Washington.
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