For 11 months of the year, abandoned box huts line Montana Highway 35, many with peeling red and green paint indicating their purpose. They are the Flathead’s fabled cherry stands.
But for a few weeks in July and August, the stands come alive to peddle the valley’s most famous fruit and offer respite from the heat with a smidgeon of shade and the promise of sweet treats.
“This has been a really good year for us,” said Bruce Johnson, a board member at the Flathead Lake Cherry Growers Cooperative. “We’ve had good growing weather, ample moisture at the right time, irrigating at the right time, and now with the heat we have a harvest without splits.”
Cherries, and fruit in general, are mostly made of water. That means cherries are susceptible to absorbing too much moisture and splitting if there is excess rain during the ripening season. In particularly wet years, growers fly a helicopter low over the orchards to dry out the trees after rainstorms.
While there is a helicopter on standby for his Buena Vista orchard, Johnson says it has stayed grounded this year. The Flathead had a wet May and June, but the weather has dried out and warmed up in recent weeks: perfect for the harvest.
The cherry cooperative has around 70 member orchards scattered among the hills surrounding Flathead Lake. In a typical year, the cooperative produces two million pounds of cherries. Johnson expects this year to be “a little bit light, but the quality of fruit is good.”
Johnson said the early rains may have delayed the cherry crop by a week or so, but it has also meant that growers haven’t needed to irrigate as much this year. Cherries are a highly weather-dependent crop and have a relatively short life span on the tree compared to other fruits.
Around Mother’s Day in May, cherry trees are typically in full bloom and growers release bees to pollinate the blossoms. A mere two months later, the ripe red fruit is ready for harvest.
“The biggest share of the harvest [started last] weekend and goes for two weeks,” Johnson said.
The most common cherry variety in the Flathead this year is the Lapins cherry, according to Johnson. The Lapins is a big, sweet cherry that has a high pressure — it’s firm enough to survive the tricky business of getting shipped regionally and internationally.
Unlike fruit such as bananas or peaches, whose unripe fruit can be picked and will be edible by the time it’s purchased, cherries are ripe off the tree. In order to keep them that way during the haul across state lines to a final destination, they have to be cold.
“We do all kinds of things to prolong a cherry’s quality,” Johnson said. “We pick in the morning when it’s cool, put them through the hydro cooler (a giant ice water bath) and then keep them in a refrigerator until they’re shipped off.”
The coolers at the warehouse are massive. Three hundred-pound bins of cherries line the walls stacked 10 high— enough to fill three semi trucks.
The refrigerated semis that pick up the cherries take off for Washington, to the Monson Fruit Company. Monson has handled the processing, packing and marketing for the Flathead Cherry Growers Cooperative for more than two decades and sends the fruit around the region and the world for consumption.
Johnson is proud of the expanding reach of the local fruit every year.
“Flathead cherries are some of the best grown,” he said before correcting himself: “They are the best-grown cherries.”
Even though Flathead cherries can be found in widespread grocery stores, cherry connoisseurs know it’s best to eat them truly fresh.
“I don’t think a cherry gets any better than if you pick it at 6 in the morning and it’s cold in your mouth,” said Johnson, who’s been in the business for 23 years now. “I’ve never gotten tired of eating them.”
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