YELLOW BAY – Every year, anywhere from 400,000 to 600,000 pounds of cherries picked along Flathead Lake are thrown away.
Culled cherries are those not good enough to be sold at supermarkets and they make up more than 30 percent of the valley’s annual crop. But now a Canadian company is moving south with a plan to turn those unwanted berries into profit for local growers.
Tabletree Montana, LLC, announced its plans on March 21 to open a juicing facility at Finley Point to a large group of growers in Yellow Bay. If everything goes according to plan, Tabletree will be turning berries into juice this summer.
“Cherry growers don’t often cheer for culled cherries, but this is different,” said Bruce Johnson, president of the Flathead Lake Cherry Growers, Inc.
Gary and Susan Snow from Creston, British Columbia, founded Tabletree Enterprises in 2010 and since then have won numerous awards for their products. The husband-and-wife team created the company because they were looking for a way to use the culled cherries at their farm. They developed a technology to turn those unwanted berries into juice and today sell numerous juices and sauces. In 2012, the company won first place in the pure juice category at the World Juice Awards and their apple juice took second place the following year.
Tabletree’s juices and sauces are currently available online, in western Canada and at Withey’s Health Foods in Kalispell.
Looking to grow their business, the Snows chose to move to the Flathead, in part because it was a better business environment and also because they’re familiar with the area. Before moving north 20 years ago, they lived in the Flathead Valley for a number of years.
The Snows signed a contract with the Flathead Lake Cherry Growers earlier this month to use the group’s Finley Point warehouse for their juicing facility. The warehouse is where local cherries are gathered for shipment to Washington to be processed and sold by the Monson Fruit Company. Other than the six or so weeks during the harvest, the warehouse sits mostly vacant for the rest of the year. Now it will be open for a few more months making cherry and apple juice. Susan Snow said she expects the company will hire 10 to 15 people, and the company hopes to produce 150,000 bottles of its specialty juice annually.
The Flathead Valley produces about 2 million pounds of cherries every year.
The facility will also be processing culled cherries from Washington. In partnership with the local growers and Monson, freight trucks that bring Flathead cherries west will now return home full of culled cherries. In the past, the trucks were empty on the return trip.
“We want to help give growers a fair return for their secondary fruit,” Gary Snow said. “It’s not going to put a ton of money in your pocket it, but it’s going to help cover your costs.”
The Flathead Lake Cherry Growers received a Growth Through Agriculture grant through the Montana Department of Agriculture that will allow them to complete renovations of their warehouse necessary for Tabletree to construct the juice plant. The Snows said they are optimistic they’ll be able to expand the operation as soon as next year.
Chris Monson of Monson Fruit said the partnership between the growers association, his company and Tabletree is an ideal one.
“We’re really excited about this because this is going to benefit all of our growers,” he said.
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