A century-old Montana apple business is alive and well.
The Swanson family’s Mountain View Apple Orchards is located in the Bitterroot Valley, where pioneers from the eastern United States established the first orchards
The Swanson family had one of the first apple orchards planted in western Montana and has one of the few remaining. And Lukas Swanson, great-grandson of pioneer Charles Swanson, aims to keep their Mountain View Apple Orchards thriving into the future.
Charles Swanson established the orchard near Corvallis in 1909, in the early days of western Montana’s apple industry. Many people moved from the East to plant apples in the Bitterroot Valley early last century, lured by advertisements by the local irrigation district, railroad, and other entities. Charles’s grandson Charlie, who runs the operation today with his wife, Julie, and son Lukas, said the area had a significant apple industry between about 1909 and 1915.
As the local population was small, most of the fruit was shipped by rail in ice cars to Chicago, New York, and other major cities in the eastern United States. Demand was strong, Charlie said, but without proper refrigeration during transit, fruit quality suffered. Gradually, inferior quality killed the market.
Another problem the region faced, in comparison with other fruit-growing areas like Washington’s Wenatchee district, was there were no cooperatives, so packers worked independently. And when codling moth became a serious problem, growers had no idea how to deal with it.
By the 1920s, it was a dying industry, though not because the region couldn’t grow quality apples, Charlie emphasized.
His grandfather survived because he was diversified. He grew other crops as well as apples, and had cattle and chickens. He never had more than about ten acres of apples, which he stored and sold before Christmas. He also worked on the irrigation canals. “He had enough things going for him so he could diversify and survive,” Charlie said.
Charlie’s father, Carl, was more interested in the cattle than the apples, but kept the orchard going. When Charlie returned to the family farm, after serving in the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps in the early 1970s, he focused on the apple business. Mountain View Orchards is now the largest of about half a dozen remaining apple operations in the state, producing between 10,000 and 12,000 bushels annually. Carl, now 90 years old, still lives on the farm and helps out on a regular basis.
The Swansons pack their own fruit and deliver it to stores and farmers’ markets within a 250-mile radius of the orchard. They also have a farm market that draws tourists who are in the region visiting Yellowstone and Glacier parks. They produce 22 varieties on 23 acres, with McIntosh being the major variety and Blondee the newest. The growing season is relatively short, averaging 145 days, so they focus on early season varieties, including Gala and the early Fuji variety September Wonder. Apples mature two to three weeks later than in Washington.
Like their ancestor Charles, the Swansons remain diversified with cattle and a cider-making business. They produce 12,000 to 15,000 gallons of cider a year, mostly from small, misshapen, or hail-damaged fruit. Lukas has plans to start a distilling business and make apple brandy, converting a perishable product, for which there’s no demand, into an imperishable product that can be marketed year round.
Lukas has bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and physics from Carthage College, Wisconsin, and graduated from Cornell University last year with a master’s degree in applied and engineering physics. He designed the new warehouse that the family built last year to increase the efficiency and storage capacity of the operation. The 11,000-square-foot warehouse has two cooling units with a total capacity of 1,000 bins, allowing room for expansion from the current 750-bin annual production.
“I know we’re not meeting the demand in our market,” Lukas said. “That’s why I’ve been able to convince my father to build the warehouse and plant more orchard.”
Though Lukas is determined to keep the business going for another generation, his immediate plan is to use his engineering and physics degree to get a job where he can make enough money to buy the business from his father so he can move back and take it over one day.
“It’s such a large investment, I don’t think I can pay it off just working for my father,” he said. “I’m trying to help him expand and make things easier.”