BIGFORK – Flathead Lake cherry growers organized late-season picking sessions this week, as orchard operations got back into full swing after a bumper crop across the Pacific Northwest forced prices down and halted picking for several days.
“I think really everything is going as well as it could with so many cherries in the pipeline,” said Sandy Kuntz, of Kuntz Family Farms just north of Yellow Bay.
Members of the Flathead Cherry Growers Association, along with growers around Montana and in Washington and Oregon, reached a tri-state agreement last week to cease picking until prices evened out after large, co-occurring harvests flooded national and international markets.
The moratorium was lifted earlier this week and cherries were selling at an “OK price,” said Dale Nelson, president of the Flathead Cherry Growers Association.
“Once we get through that, where there’s a lot of fruit in the marketplace, it can change quickly,” Nelson said.
Nelson estimated that Washington’s cherry crop was about 85 percent complete, which will make room for Montana’s later crop to be picked up by warehouses.
Meanwhile, growers like Kuntz are relying on local traffic and regional sales to keep the fruit moving.
“We did not have as good of luck with packing our fruit to the plant. We’re a member of the cherry growers association, so that’s how it goes,” Kuntz said.
Some of the Kuntzes’ riper Lambert cherries weren’t accepted by the warehouse. Instead, they were sold at the farm and at roadside stands.
“We have a lot of road traffic. People have been driving up and into the farm and back into the barn where we’re still packing our Lamberts,” she said. “We really appreciate everyone’s business, people who are coming and driving in, we just love to see them.”
Cherry House owner Louise Swanberg has seen similarly positive local sales.
“Local taste buds like ripe,” Swanberg said. “My roadside stand is so busy I can hardly stand it.”
Swanberg also is selling Lamberts to a warehouse, but only the fruit that has been late to ripen.
The surplus this year makes Swanberg think growers here might need to rethink where, when and how their fruit is sold.
“I’m sure that all of the fruit growers in Montana are rethinking their timing strategies, marketing strategies ... who markets your fruit. Where does it go?” she said. “When Washington floods the market with an abundance of lower-quality cherries, they kind of lock us out.”
When the season ends, Swanberg will begin working in earnest on what Cherry House will offer in the future.
For example, international markets want big, red cherries. Local buyers are more focused on taste, Swanberg said.
“We’ll make it through the year, but I’m a scientist. I’m in a process of re-evaluating what is going to be the future, which varieties, which timing, which firmness, but we don’t want to sacrifice taste,” Swanberg said.
Some growers in the area have been planting sweetheart cherry trees, a variety that ripens later, allowing them to enter the market after the Washington cherries, association president Nelson said.
“The later you are, the better it is,” Nelson said.
For now, growers want people to know their cherries are ripe and ready all along the lake.
“If anybody wants cherries, it’s a good time to drive up north,” Kuntz said.
Reporter Jenna Cederberg can be reached at 523-5241 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.