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BIGFORK - Along the shores of Flathead Lake are a multitude of cherry stands attempting to lure drivers away from the highway using hand-painted signs posted on nearby trees and fenceposts advertising their plump red fruit.

But one particular cherry stand offers a tiny bonus.

"1/2 mi. Jubilee Orchard," the sign says. "Meet Tiny the talking bird."

Tiny, a 17-year-old cockatoo perched on the back shelves of the 40-foot-long cherry stand, is a small trademark of a veteran cherry business in the Flathead Valley. For nearly half a century, Clarice and Bill Bush have grown fruit that eases customers' cherry cravings. They purchased 11 acres four miles south of Bigfork in 1960 and began the following year selling cherries out of the bed of a 1940 Ford pickup.

They were among the youngest members in the Flathead Cherry Growers co-op back then. Today, they are among its oldest members, said 81-year-old Clarice Bush. Her husband, Bill, is 84.

Between the first of July and mid-August, their cherry stand located along Highway 35 north of Bigfork is open nine hours every day. There's a constant flow of customers - some of whom stop with a Tiny interest.

"We used to give him a cherry to talk, but now he wants a cherry before he talks," Bush said. "He's smart."

Tiny's vocabulary is quite extensive. For a bird, that is.

Most commonly he says, "hello," but over time, Tiny has picked up phrases like, "Tiny is a good boy." He mimics Bush's laugh and can make the noise of a telephone ring and then follows it up by saying, "hello." The ringing telephone impression has caught a few new employees off guard. The clever bird will make the noise and then watch as employees unknowingly run to answer the phone.

"He knew what he was doing," Bush said. "He's intelligent."

Tiny dissects a cherry with great precision. First, he removes the stem using his thick beak. Next, he opens up the small fruit and pulls out the seed before eating the cherry's meaty exterior.

"By the end of the day his feet are sticky and purple," said Jeff, Bush's 22-year-old grandson. Jeff Bush is from Florida but spends much of the cherry season in Montana. Harvesting is a family affair. Relatives from Washington state and Florida converge on Bigfork for several weeks to help with pruning, irrigating, picking, packaging and selling.

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The Bush family acquired an orchard out of a desire to establish a home. The Bushes married in 1948. Bill Bush was a missile commander in the U.S. Air Force, which took the family to military bases in Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota. After retirement, the couple wanted a town that their two children could call home.

Clarice, who was raised in Missoula, vacationed in Bigfork during the summers growing up. Cherries seemed like a good endeavor in 1960, the year the Bushes purchased 11 acres. Bill, after all, had a forestry degree.

"In 1960, they said you could make your mortgage off cherries," Bush said. "The Realtor doesn't say that anymore."

No cherry season is the same. The last several years have produced little fruit - last year as a result of a late spring frost. The rain poured this year, which ended up being both a blessing and a curse.

Three times the co-op hired a helicopter to hover over members' orchards to remove excess water from the cherry trees, and a neighbor came another time with a fan on his tractor. Each time, it saved the crop, Bush said.

A majority of the cherries are shipped to other states and sold. Only about 5 percent of the Bushes' crop is sold locally from a stand that opens around the Fourth of July. The Bushes sell cherries from Washington state orchards until the six types of cherries growing in their orchard ripen around mid-July.

Their cherries are among the last to ripen on Flathead Lake because it's one of the northernmost orchards, Bush said. Ripening time can differ between Polson and Bigfork orchards by a week to 10 days, she said.

This year, the Bushes' crop was about 10 days later than usual, which means they'll be selling that much later into August. In fact, there's still green fruit on the trees.

Just last week, Bush traveled to the Whitefish farmers market with packaged cherries. She has never sold produce at a farmers market before, but because of the abundance of cherries, there's a need to sell.

"People don't like small cherries," she said. "This year, the size of cherries is great."

The recipe for cherries jubilee is printed on the back of their business cards. In 1955, Bill and Clarice were at a military base in the Philippines seated at an officer's club. They ordered an unknown dish: cherries jubilee.

"It's a spectacular dessert," Bush said.

The meal was a memorable one as the couple eventually named their business after the flaming dessert.

It's been a fulfilling life, Bush said. The cherry business is a volatile industry and a lot of hard work, but it's something Bush doesn't foresee giving up in the next decade. The family is always trying new methods, experimenting with different types of cherries and growing techniques.

"We are looking for the ultimate cherry," she said. Even though Bush is not convinced, after almost 50 years, they surely must have found it by now.

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com.

 

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