Flathead Cherry Study Now Includes Organic Orchard

By Beacon Staff

As part of her study on diversifying the Flathead cherry market, Pat McGlynn is bringing more variety to her research by branching out to farming’s organic side.

McGlynn, the Montana State University extension agriculture agent, recently planted an orchard of organic cherries to add to her ongoing exploration of the viability of various types of cherries in the Flathead.

The new plot is identical to the other six plots around the lake that McGlynn planted last year – six new varieties of cherries with eight trees of each, totaling 44 fruit-bearing trees with the remaining counting for pollinator trees in the orchard.

The only difference between the six conventional cherry orchards and the latest edition is how the trees will be cared for. McGlynn noted that most conventional farmers on the lake use as little pesticide as possible on their trees, but only three orchards are certified organic.

“It ought to be interesting to see what the difference in that type of cultivation and care will be and if it will make any impact on the cherries at all,” McGlynn said.

McGlynn’s research comes on the heels of a glut cherry season, during which growers left unsold and unpicked fruit on the trees. Her project will see how new types of cherries grow in the Flathead, and how they could possibly broaden the market for growers.

The organic plot could provide information for other growers around the lake about possible marketing opportunities, she said.

“It’s going to be interesting,” McGlynn said. “More and more people are looking to find out what can we grow organically.”

As one of the three current certified organic growers, Heidi Johnson of The Orchard on Flathead Lake said there is definitely a market for her fruit. She supplies cherries to Missoula brewers and vitners for their beverages, and ships boxes of her crop to all parts of the country.

“We have a waiting list every year,” Johnson said. “We never have enough.”

Johnson has 500 trees on her Yellow Bay orchard, and manages six other orchards as well. Her orchard has been certified organic by the state Department of Agriculture since 2003; in order to qualify, growers must stick to a list of qualified products, adhere to an integrated pest management plan and provide copious records.

The three organic growers have formed a co-op, she said, and they are working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural development program to develop a feasibility study and marketing and distribution plans for organic cherries.

Organic cherries are considered value-added products, Johnson said.

More orchard owners would likely grow organic cherries if they knew they could make money, she said. Johnson’s cherries sell in health food stores around the state, as well as major grocery store chains.

Ideally, the organic growers’ co-op would develop a packaging facility in the Flathead, Johnson said, one with an adjacent community kitchen for the public to use for non-commercial projects.

If the co-op grows, they would have to put serious thought into how big such a facility would need to be to accommodate a crop output that could range from 500,000 to 1 million pounds, Johnson said.

McGlynn’s new plot could help bring attention to the idea of growing organically, Johnson said.

“I’m very happy that somebody’s doing some research,” Johnson said.

McGlynn said it would be a while before the trees can produce viable fruit, but they will hopefully give growers an idea about potential, untapped markets.

“I see that this study will help us get into different markets that we haven’t even looked at yet,” she said.

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