YELLOW BAY — There are certain signs of summer any Flathead resident could recognize: long days with rich light, dust rising from beneath the hooves of a cowboy’s rodeo horse, and hand-painted signs speckling Highway 35 from Bigfork to Polson advertising the best cherries available.
Late July to early August is prime picking time for Flathead cherries, which are so popular that their only rival this time of year is the huckleberry. Along this stretch of highway, stands pop open their windows and pile up the fruit, which is having a good growing season in 2018.
There aren’t as many cherries as last summer, Bruce Johnson of the Flathead Lake Cherry Growers cooperative said, but that’s actually been a boon to the crop, because the trees aren’t as heavily laden and can put more energy into making plumper, sweeter cherries.
Harvest weights can basically stay the same when this happens, Johnson said.
“I’ve heard that 11 semis have been shipped out,” Johnson said. “That’s almost like 400,000 pounds already, and really the main crop is still coming in.”
Flathead cherries ripen a bit later in the year than their Washington and Oregon counterparts, which allows the berries into the market at a time when there’s less competition. The FLCG ships their cherries to Washington, along with selling them at roadside stands and U-Pick operations at their orchards.
Most of the varietals are still soaking up the sun on the trees, and orchard owners plan on intense growing and picking in the next few weeks. The cherries are large and undamaged, and these are the cherries that sell the best.
Orchards need the long, hot summer days and the cool Montana evenings on the lake to sweeten perfectly, and a recent rainstorm threatened to corrupt some of the fruit still on the trees. If water ends up in the little cup at the top of the cherry where the stem connects, it can seep into the already-plump berries and make them burst, cracking and damaging them.
To avoid this, the growers buzz a helicopter low over the trees, using the rotor-made wind to clear out the water. Out of precaution, the growers did this last week after a little rainstorm.
“Boy, the fruit’s looking so good, let’s go ahead and get it dried,” Johnson said. “From what I’ve heard, everyone who needed to be dried got dried.”
Overall, the season is bustling. Roadside stands reported selling out of their cherries every day, and plenty of out-of-state license-plated vehicles were parked at their stands, thanks in part to road construction on the west side of the lake pushing more traffic east.
At Sunset Bay Orchard’s road stand, third-generation cherry grower Mark Lewis helped the McCallums from Anaconda get their annual berry fix. Their crop is looking fine this year, he said.
“The cherries are wonderful, just wonderful,” Lewis said as he filled a box.
The McCallums discovered Sunset Bay Orchard last summer, and drove to this stand specifically again this year to purchase their bounty.
“This is our second time coming here,” Marijean McCallum said. “It’s great.”
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