In 1866, Thomas W. Harris is thought to have planted Montana’s first cherry trees in the Bitterroot Valley. Orchards then popped up around Flathead Lake in the 1880s and 1890s.
By the time cherry orchards faded from the Bitterroot’s agricultural landscape in the first decades of the 20th century, the Flathead had become the cherry capital of the state.
Today, growers in the Flathead harvest millions of pounds of cherries each summer. And this year looks to be particularly fruitful for one of Montana’s most unique and historic crops.
Dale Nelson, president of the Flathead Lake Cherry Growers co-op, said he expects his 102 members to harvest at least 3 million pounds of cherries this year, up from a yearly average of 2.5 million. And demand is high.
“All of the rain helped,” Nelson said. “It’s not just more cherries, but also bigger fruit too.”
Rain isn’t always beneficial, however. While the moisture of late spring and early summer provided optimal growing conditions, the recent rains have slowed the harvest.
Nelson said cherry growers wait 24 hours after a rain to begin picking again. That meant there was about a two- to three-day delay in the middle of the harvest. Some growers began picking fruit the last week of July.
By the end of last week, pickers “were definitely at the peak” of activity, Nelson said. Nelson expects the harvest to start slowing down by the end of this week.
Cherry orchards line both the west and east shores of Flathead Lake, though the majority are on the east side between Bigfork and Polson. While 102 of the farms are members of the co-op, there are independent operations as well.
Flathead Lake Cherry Growers was established in the 1930s, making it “one of the oldest agricultural co-ops in Montana,” Nelson said. During harvest, the co-op collects members’ cherries at a Finley Point facility, where they’re kept cool and then loaded into semi-trucks.
The trucks take the cherries to Selah, Wash., to be processed at the Monson Fruit Company. A Yakima-based company called Domex Inc. handles sales and marketing for the co-op.
“We’ve had 10 to 11 semis per day leaving here,” Nelson said. “They’re hungry for the fruit.”
Among the largest buyers of Flathead’s cherries, Nelson said, are Costco, Walmart, Kroger and Sam’s Club – “pretty much the companies that can buy a whole semi load of cherries.” Local sales account for about 10-15 percent of the market, Nelson said.
Roadside stands are a major component of the local market. This year, perhaps buoyed by the Glacier National Park centennial, Nelson said the stands have been exceptionally busy. At the stands, customers buy directly from the growers.
“I haven’t seen traffic like this in four or five years,” Nelson said. “Roadside sales have been fantastic.”
Lambert and Lapin cherries are the predominant crop on Flathead Lake, but Nelson said varieties such as Rainier are also grown. Because of agricultural advances and the savvy of local growers, Nelson said the quality of cherries is constantly improving.
“Every year the cherries are getting better,” Nelson said. “Bigger and sweeter means more pounds. And we’ve definitely got that. We’ve got some really beautiful fruit coming off the trees right now.”
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