Study Begins on Diversifying Flathead Cherry Market

By Beacon Staff

LAKESIDE – At a cherry orchard here, the future of the Flathead’s tastiest industry is taking root.

Rows of recently planted baby cherry trees, 44 in all, could represent a delicious life raft for area growers.

Last year’s glut crop of the popular Lambert cherry left many orchards with fruit hanging on the trees in August, unpicked and unsold. It has been a recurring problem in recent seasons, but neither the growers nor Pat McGlynn, the Montana State University extension agriculture agent, were going to sit back and hope for the best.

Instead, McGlynn secured nearly $25,000 in funding through the state Department of Agriculture to pay for the beginning of a sweet cherry variety trial.

In this trial, six orchards around the Flathead – from Finley Point in Polson to Bigfork – will each host 44 trees, 264 total for the study, representing five cherry types that have never previously been planted in Montana. Some, like the SR 500, are so new that researchers have yet to name them.

Each orchard represents the microclimates around the lake, which will be taken into consideration when monitoring the trees’ progress.

The new varieties come from New York, Washington and British Columbia. Along with the SR 500, they include the Hudson, the Santina, the Attika and the Regina.

There are even a few trees that still have patents pending and are being watched by researchers from other states, McGlynn said.

The grant money also paid for the hire of the leading cherry expert in the Pacific Northwest, Dr. Matthew Whiting from Washington State University.

The experiment’s theory is simple: Just as it takes multiple tree leaves to channel the energy needed to produce the perfect cherry, it will probably take several types of sweet cherries to keep the Flathead’s market viable.

Currently, the most popular cherries in the 150 orchards around the lake are Lamberts and Lapins. These fruits are sweet and firm, both desirable qualities in the market.

Flathead Lamberts, however, typically come to market between July 20 and Aug. 4. The big orchards in Washington and Oregon have an earlier growing season and can have their fruit on stands a week earlier, according to orchard owner Dr. Louise Swanberg.

Swanberg owns the orchard near Lakeside taking part of the study.

“I think we, in the cherry industry, we need to probably start looking at broadening our season,” Swanberg said.

This does not mean replacing the popular Lambert, but, rather, taking a scientific approach to see if adding variety and lengthening the growing season could help the Flathead compete in a larger market, Swanberg added.

Most of the Flathead orchards send their cherries to Washington-based Munson Fruit for processing. If other states have an overabundance of fruit, Montana’s growers can have trouble selling their fruit.

That is the problem this study hopes to tackle, McGlynn said.

“We’re trying for a larger cherry, but we’re really going for taste,” McGlynn said. “We’re not going to give up flavor for size or timing.”

The study has many in the cherry world paying attention, Finley Point orchard owner Dick Beighle said, because these trees have never been tested in Montana. If successful, it could mean a new market for Munson Fruit, grocery stores and other growers.

“The main thing is what we’re trying to accomplish with this first plot is answers for everybody,” Beighle said.

He and his wife Bernie offered up space in their orchard for the study, though they have been testing new varieties for years now, Beighle said.

Each orchard owner donated valuable land for the study, some even ripping out mature trees to make room. This means a considerable loss in potential revenue, McGlynn said, and shows the growers’ commitment to finding solutions.

It takes roughly five years for young trees to produce fruit, so the study is literally in its infancy. They should know a lot in three years, McGlynn said, but it is a five-year study.

All the growers are working toward one goal, something McGlynn finds encouraging. They’ve even begun to discuss field trips to each other’s orchards to learn about different planting and spacing techniques, she said.

Other members of the cherry community are working on new marketing plans for Montana fruit. This is an intricate piece of the solution, Swanberg said, because it would mean a grown-in-Montana label on the cherries.

“We’re trying to make sure Montanans know what a Montana product is and to buy local,” Swanberg said.

Beighle agreed, noting that Eastern Montana could be a fertile market for Flathead cherries. He also sees more potential growth in the trial.

“I would predict that if we could see the marketing that we would see a lot more cherry orchards come in around the lake,” Beighle said.

But for now, the focus is on the young trees dotting six orchards around the Flathead. McGlynn will visit the saplings every month to check in on their progress and to take photos for her research.

“We’re really excited because this was just an idea last summer and now the trees are in the ground,” McGlynn said.

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