Out of Bounds

Peaches in Montana

Hucks, Flathead cherries and the arrival of improbable peaches so delightful they are treated like the return of Santa Claus seems wonderful enough

By Rob Breeding

One of the things I found curious about Montana when I first moved to the state was the way folks lost their heads over the arrival of summer fruit. 

Huckleberries from the mountains. Cherries from the orchards ringing Flathead Lake. Peaches from Colorado. 

“What’s the fuss, I groused?”

Two qualifiers: I hadn’t yet tasted any of these wonders and growing up in Southern California had left me somewhat jaded about wonders in the first place, at least so far as produce was concerned.

 California has no peach season I can recall. They were in the grocery store pretty much year-round. Not quite as ubiquitous as apples, but darn near. Still, we reserved stone fruits mostly for summer. They were better in season.

I moved to Montana mid-summer in 1992. While stopping for gas in Brigham City, Utah, I got to talking with a Mormon farmer; he was curious what I was up to. When I explained I was moving to Montana to be a sportswriter, he chuckled, ran a quick calculation on his fingers, and said, “You’ll get two, maybe three good months before the snow flies.” 

He said it in a way that suggested he’d see me sometime in November, as I fled back to the land of eternal fruit.

In Montana, I observed the way seasonal crops came in waves through summer. Now Hamilton had four grocery stores, including a Super 1 with a produce section that rarely left me wanting. Still, I learned to take advantage of sweet corn during its narrow August window. And also the huckleberries, which required some knowledge of the Bitterroots or a friend willing to share. 

Then came the Flathead cherries. Around that same time the Colorado peaches also began to show up at roadside stands around the valley. I’d never heard of Colorado peaches before but soon learned it was a Montana tradition born in an era when peaches here mostly came in a can. 

Colorado peaches are grown in Palisade and the area around Grand Junction, where the Colorado River drains out of the Rockies. The microclimate at the mouth of the canyon makes it a great place to ripen peaches, which are usually grown in hotter places farther south.

When those peaches ripen they spread across the Northern Rockies — and the peach-inhospitable Great Plains — in weathered pickup trucks to be sold from tailgates along with sweet corn and cherries and precious bags of surplus hucks gathered by pickers with a recollection of secret spots that would leave a Clark’s nutcracker furious with envy.

I wasn’t ignorant of where food came from, but watching this summer procession was a revelation. Later, when I started a family, I learned from my new Montana in-laws that the arrival of Colorado peaches was once an even bigger deal. Folks bought them by the crate and gorged on the fresh fruit for as long as they could, before putting the rest up for winter.

Those sweet peaches, ripened in the hot summer days and cool nights of Palisade, were rare gems and a welcome distraction from the dog days of August.

Despite modern grocery store produce, that fruit remains so special you’d think the news that peach orchards might someday ripen in Montana would be welcomed with fanfare. The state’s expert witness in the Held climate-change lawsuit has promised, after all, that we’ll cope with our warming planet by growing peaches farther north and relocating Napa Valley’s grape production to Montana.

I hope the northward creep of climate change proceeds in such an orderly fashion that Montana cattle ranchers and wheat farmers can evolve their operations into the new Napa with hardly any disruption. But I doubt it.

I don’t think many are yearning for this change, either. 

Hucks, Flathead cherries and the arrival of improbable peaches so delightful they are treated like the return of Santa Claus seems wonderful enough.