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Louise Swanberg, pictured with Tom Colyer, says it’s hard to make money with the existing cherry varieties grown in Montana.

Louise Swanberg, pictured with Tom Colyer, says it’s hard to make money with the existing cherry varieties grown in Montana.

Photos courtesy of Pat mcglynn, montana state university

Montana cherry growers are hoping that new varieties will help them survive the biggest crisis they have faced so far.

In three of the last ten years, cherry producers located around Flathead Lake in northwest Montana have had difficulty selling their ­cherries at a profit, and the industry, which was established more than a century ago, is facing its greatest crisis ever, reports Dr. Pat McGlynn, Montana State University Extension educator for Flathead County.

The 28-mile-long Flathead Lake is the largest fresh­water lake west of the Mississippi and is surrounded by almost 1,000 acres of cherries. The lake has a moderating influence on the climate, eliminating the need for wind machines, said grower Gerald Bowman of Bigfork. “Mother Nature has that built in for us.”

About a dozen growers have fruit stands where they sell to local people and visitors.

The area used to produce almost exclusively Lambert, which was its signature cherry.  In 1989, after a severe winter freeze, some of the orchards were replanted with Lapins, which is a little bigger and firmer and less susceptible to damage from rain, but still more than 80 percent of the plantings are Lamberts.

The lake is situated at an elevation of around 2,900 feet, and the season runs about two weeks later than Washington. The first Lamberts are typically picked around July 22 to 24, and Lapins a little later.

The Flathead Lake Cherry Growers Association cooperative used to pack most of the wholesale cherries in the area, but in 1999 it stopped, partly because its equipment was outdated. Since then, the members’ fruit has been transported by refrigerated truck to Monson Fruit Company in Selah, Washington, for packing and shipping after being hydrocooled at the old plant.

Late season

Dr. Louise Swanberg, a physician and cherry grower at Kalispell, said that as Washington plants more of the later-maturing varieties and at higher elevations, it creates an overlap that is detrimental to the Montana growers, who don’t have the option of planting at higher elevations and feel they don’t have much clout because of the small size of their industry. Montana’s total production ranges from 5 to 10 million pounds, whereas Washington produces around 320 million pounds. Many Montana growers believe there’s little interest in their cherries in years when ­Washington has an abundance of fruit.

The Montana growers incur additional costs for ­transportation and packing, and for the last couple of years, their cherries have sold for less than the cost of ­production, she said.

Swanberg grew up on the orchard she now operates. She worked for ten years in Washington, D.C., before returning to the orchard in the mid-1980s to help her father. She and her husband have been running the orchard since the early 1990s, though she still works as a physician.

“I have to keep my day job,” she said. “For two years running, my orchard hasn’t made any money. Some change is going to have to be made. Unless your land is gratis and you have low overhead, it’s a hard business to make a profit in.”

Save the industry

In 2009, a group of growers went to talk to McGlynn to find out how to save the cherry industry. She suggested that expanding into new varieties—both earlier and later—might help expand the season, but said it should be approached scientifically since replanting orchards involves a major investment.

She received funding totaling $55,000 from the Montana Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a trial to assess which varieties are best adapted to Montana conditions. Since there is no cherry research program at MSU, Dr. Matt Whiting, Washington State University cherry horticulturist, is serving as advisor for the project for three years. The funding is also paying for a part-time research assistant as well as for the trees.

In the spring of 2010, six growers planted plots of 44 trees that included the early maturing Santina, and the late-maturing Hudson, Regina, Sam, Attika, Skeena, and an unnamed red cherry from Washington State University known as SR500—all varieties that had never been grown in Montana before.

Cody Herring, owner and manager of a cherry growing and packing company called Glacier Fresh located at Bigfork, sees a big need for new varieties in Montana. He handles about 15 to 20 percent of the Flathead Lake crop, and exports all the fruit. He works through a marketer based in Oliver, British Columbia, Canada, and exports the fruit via Calgary, Alberta, or Vancouver, British ­Columbia, depending whether it is east- or west-bound.

Buyers aren’t much interested in Lamberts if there’s any alternative, Herring has found, and as production

in Washington increases from recent plantings, the ­Montana Lamberts will be even less desirable. “We have to grow premium quality to get into that market,” he said.

The problem with Lapins is that it’s not late enough because Montana growers can be harvesting it at the same time as Sweetheart cherries are harvested from Washington’s Stemilt Hill.

McGlynn said the growers had been a little discouraged and felt they were at a standstill. The project has brought people together—organic and conventional, cooperative members and ­nonmembers—to discuss how to go forward.

Swanberg hopes that with more desirable varieties and better harvest timings, the Montana growers might ­interest other packers and marketers in their cherries.

“We need more secondary markets, and we probably need more competition—more outlets—because we have wonderful fruit,” she said.

The trial will show when trees of the different varieties bloom, how they might be affected by frost, what the ­harvest time is in Montana conditions, and what the potential market might be.

“We’re looking for fruit that meets the market demands in terms of size,” Swanberg said. “We need something that’s really firm, so it can go the longer distances—firmer than Lambert and probably a little firmer than Lapins. And we would like to extend the season to have cherries until the 25th of August.

“We’re going to try to meet those things and not ­compromise on taste,” she added.

That’s why the growers chose to plant Regina in their trial instead of Sweetheart, which they think lacks flavor. The problem with Regina, however, is that it does not always set a good crop. Swanberg also planted a small trial of her own this spring with three different pollenizers. She suspects that different pollenizers might be ­effective in different seasons, depending on the weather.

Herring has had his own variety trial for the past few years in an attempt to find later-season cherries that would work specifically for the export market. He thinks a Canadian variety called Kootenay, which was discovered in Creston, British Columbia, is promising. It’s as late as Sweetheart, but the fruit is larger. It is firm with a high sugar content and has a long, green stem. He has second-leaf trees and expects his first crop next year. The variety has not been popular in Washington because it doesn’t tolerate intense heat, but he thinks it could be a good fit for Montana.